By Shawn Carman
Shingon Tsuken very carefully returned the scroll to its place among the archives. It was an ancient text, and age had made it quite fragile. Tsuken was one of the few members of the Phoenix qualified to handle such delicate materials. His family, the Shingon, a tiny vassal branch of the Isawa, were experts on the research and care of nemuranai. Much of Tsuken's research required the reference to older manuscripts, necessitating that they be painstakingly copied. Tsuken had handled such items since before his gempukku, when he would assist his father in his work. He often longed for the simplicity of those days, when dropping a valuable manuscript was his greatest fear.
"Tsuken-san," called a voice from the nearby chamber. "Have you located the scroll we require?"
The young librarian sighed. "Not yet, Maasaki-sama. I shall have it for you in just a moment." Masaaki was a good and honorable master, but he was not the most compassionate lord one could hope for. He would occasionally ask extraordinarily difficult tasks of Tsuken only to perform them himself after having forgotten giving the job to his apprentice. Other times, like now, he would ask for a time-consuming service and then demand its completion almost immediately. In all the years that Tsuken had served Maasaki, he was not sure his master had ever addressed him by his family name, Shingon. He always used Isawa, which was technically the proper form of address for those outside the clan. While he knew Maasaki meant no offense, it was still a clear indication that he cared little for his apprentice.
Still, Tsuken admitted, Maasaki was a wise man, and his service with him had been very enlightening. He permitted Tsuken to participate in many of his experiments, many of which involved study of rare and wondrous nemuranai, the sort the Shingon only dreamed of studying. Through association with Masaaki he had been given leave to work in Gisei Toshi, a city he had thought of as a mere myth only months earlier. Already, many of Tsuken's family had admitted to being quite envious of his prestigious position. It was a forgone conclusion that one day he would rise within the ranks of his tiny family.
Tsuken found the scroll he was looking for, finally. He quickly crossed the somewhat meager library and entered Maasaki's laboratory. The older man was, as he often was, lost in his thoughts as he scrutinized a tiny statue crafted in the form of a golden frog holding a tea cup. "Yes, yes," he said, smiling. "Truly a marvelous work of art."
"The text you wanted, Maasaki-sama," offered Tsuken.
"Text?" the older shugenja said somewhat absently. "Oh yes, of course. Set it on my writing desk, please." He returned his attention to the statue. "Once I've finished identifying the abilities of this magnificent item, you will check it against our records and make any changes you deem necessary. Then we can return it to the Masters."
"So you have confirmed it?" asked Tsuken. "Is it one of the genuine Golden Frogs of Kaeru?"
"It is indeed," breathed Maasaki. "A most precious treasure. It came into the Isawa's possession by happenstance, discovered among some other commodities one of our merchant patrons acquired from the Crane. A most fortuitous turn of events, I would say. Who better to care for such a wondrous item than the Phoenix, neh?" Maasaki smiled at his apprentice. "Very well, then. You may begin with the records, Tsuken." He gestured at the scrolls. "Be sure you are very attentive to detail, as this is an extremely important find. I have some correspondence I need to attend to while you do so."
Tsuken nodded and moved the scrolls to his desk while his master gathered some materials and headed for his quarters. Just before he left, Tsuken called after him. "Maasaki-sama," he said as if remembering something he had forgotten, "is it permissible for me to make a separate account of the Frog's qualities? For the Shingon records?"
"Shingon?" said Maasaki, already engrossed in another scroll. "Oh. Yes, certainly. Go right ahead. A secondary account of such things is always a good idea."
Tsuken smiled. Such a scroll would do much to further the mission of his family. The Shingon were merely an offshoot of the Isawa, and while it was the Isawa who had charged them with their mission to study the various items of power that existed throughout the Empire, the Isawa's secretive nature prevented them from being particularly forthcoming about such things, even to their own vassals.
The librarian had barely begun his task when he heard a gasp from Maasaki's chambers. "Tsuken!" roared the shugenja, bursting back into the laboratory. "Which chamber contains last year's correspondences? Tell me quickly, man!"
"It… it… I put it in the first shelf on the left portion of the library, just as you instructed." Tsuken felt the color drain from his face. He had never seen such behavior from his master. It was most uncharacteristic. Maasaki bolted into the library, and Tsuken could hear the sound of scrolls being hastily shoved aside as the shugenja rifled through the shelves looking for something specific. Despite the strangeness of the circumstances, Tsuken winced at the thought of the damage done to some of the older parchments.
"Here!" shouted Maasaki. He came out of the library and crossed the lab to return to his chambers, frantically searching a scroll for something. He entered his chambers and slid the shoji screen shut without another word to Tsuken.
Utterly bewildered, Tsuken quickly finished the task at hand, then went to the library to repair the damage his master had done. It was not as bad as he had feared, but it still took him the better portion of an hour to get everything back in its place. Just as he placed the final scroll back onto the shelves, he heard the shoji screen slide open once more. For a moment, he feared that Maasaki would storm back into the library and ruin all his work.
"Tsuken, prepare your things," Maasaki said, his voice calm and even. "We leave at once."
"As you command, master," Tsuken said, bowing his head respectfully. "Where are we going?"
"I will explain once we are underway, if at all," Maasaki replied cryptically.
Hours later, the two men were traveling north toward the most distant of the Isawa provinces, and Tsuken was still waiting for an explanation. He knew better than to press the issue, however. Maasaki had been particularly quiet since his strange outburst, and Tsuken knew that he was deep in thought. When he had put things right in his own mind, then he would be more forthcoming.
It was nearly dusk before Maasaki began to explain himself. "I have a colleague among the Agasha. You might say that he and I share a similar passion for the study of nemuranai. He does not have the resources I enjoy, of course, and to be honest I've always thought him a bit of a dolt, but he is well-intentioned nonetheless, and he serves his family well." He reached into his obi and withdrew a scroll. "I received this letter from him some months ago. Chunigo claimed to have made some new discovery, although he would not specify what it was or where he found it. In truth, it seemed little more than boasting about some ill-defined conquest of his. I paid it little attention." He withdrew a second scroll from his bag, this one bearing a seal of some sort. "This one I received today. The magistrate in the village where Chunigo conducts his research, an old associate of mine, wrote to inform me that there was an accident of some sort, and that Chunigo's residence burned to the ground. He did not survive."
"I am sorry, Maasaki-sama."
"Thank you Tsuken," said the shugenja, smiling slightly. "The magistrate who investigated the fire found a scroll that survived the fire. It contained drawings of some sinister mask and mention of Shiro Chuda."
"Shiro Chuda!" exclaimed Tsuken. "The Snake Clan palace! That place is cursed, Maasaki-sama! Surely no one would be such a fool as to look for artifacts there!"
"I would have hoped that was true," admitted Maasaki. "But it seems that Chunigo was as foolish as I had thought."
The two rode in silence for a time. Tsuken dwelled on what his master had told him, then finally asked the question that disquieted him so. "What is the purpose of our journey, Maasaki-sama? There is little we can hope to recover from your comrade's home, I would think."
"No, what can be saved has already been removed and returned to his family," admitted Maasaki. "Our concern is what was not found."
"I do not understand."
"No trace of the mask depicted in the scroll was found, nor even the remnants of such a thing. Even if it had been consumed in the fire, there would be traces left behind."
Tsuken looked confused. "Do we even know for a fact that he had such an item in his possession?"
"No." Maasaki looked at Tsuken evenly. "Do you want to take a chance that an artifact from the Snake Clan has become lost in our lands?"
"No," responded the scholar emphatically. "No, I do not."
"Exactly," said Maasaki.
The home of Agasha Chunigo was little more than a charred ruin. The pair of scholars had spent a few hours there, speaking with the magistrates, investigating the ruins, and questioning the eta that had prepared Chunigo's corpse for cremation. The magistrates were almost obsequious in their eagerness to help. In the lands of the Phoenix, none were so respected as an Isawa shugenja. With their arrival, the magistrates assumed that the solution to the mystery could not be far behind.
Tsuken hoped that their confidence was well placed, but he feared there was little to be learned. Maasaki seemed to feel differently, however, and became more and more agitated as their investigation continued. Just when Tsuken believed that the time had come to return home, Maasaki ordered him to purchase provisions to travel to the northern mountains. Tsuken could tell that asking for more information would be a mistake.
Once they reached the mountains, the journey became considerably more difficult. Neither of the two men were skilled at physical activities such as those required when climbing through the mountains. Two days into the trip, Tsuken was beginning to doubt his master's sanity.
Those doubts ended when they heard sounds of battle echoing through the peaks. Tsuken was shocked to hear such things so deep in the mountain range, but Maasaki did not appear surprised. Indeed, he only seemed resigned. "We must hurry," was all he said. They were the only words he had spoken since they had left Chunigo's home.
The echoing of the sounds throughout the mountains made it difficult to track the sounds, but Maasaki withdrew a scroll from his obi and consulted it briefly, then led Tsuken unerringly toward the sounds. Within a very short time, the two came to a rise overlooking a shallow depression within the mountains.
The first thing to catch Tsuken's eye was the strange structure in the center of the depression. It was not large, no bigger than a single watchtower like those the Shiba used along the Dragon border. That it was located so far north was unusual, as was its bizarre construction. The architecture used in its design was very odd indeed. Tsuken believed it to be Scorpion, for the most part, but the domed cap were clearly gaijin in origin. Who would create such a strange building? And why here?
Those questions were forgotten, however, in the face of the two men within the depression. One wore the colors of the Unicorn, the other Phoenix. Both were shugenja, as evidenced by the spells swirling around them as they hurled pure elemental fury at one another. The devastation of the landscape around them suggested that they had been at one another's throats for some time now.
"Do not move, Tsuken-san," whispered Maasaki. "Do nothing without my command."
"As you wish," said Tsuken breathlessly.
The battle was short-lived, the combatants having exhausted most of their energy before the scholars arrived. At first, the two seemed evenly matched. As the minutes dragged on, however, it became apparent that the Unicorn was rapidly losing strength. His elemental magic was beginning to visibly weaken, while the Phoenix's spells seemed only to grow stronger. With dawning horror, Tsuken realized that the blasts the Phoenix was unleashed were not elemental magic, but maho. Black energy streaked with sickly green streaked from his fingertips.
Even as Tsuken realized the nature of the Phoenix, he saw the Unicorn stagger and fall. The Phoenix tsukai threw back his hood to reveal a scowling demon mempo. He roared in triumph and strode purposefully toward the Unicorn's unmoving form.
"Now," whispered Maasaki. He leapt up from his hiding place and hurled a huge ball of fire toward the masked shugenja, followed closely by Tsuken's own much weaker tempest of air. Their target saw tried to erect a shield, but was too late. The two spells washed over him, searing and ripping at him with their fury. He screamed in pain and outrage, then vanished in a thick haze of oily black smoke.
Tsuken could not believe his eyes. "Is… was that it? Is he dead?"
"No," answered Maasaki brusquely. "He has simply fled upon the wind."
The apprentice shook his head incredulously. This had been the first time in his life he had seen magic used in combat. "Are all battles so… so abrupt?"
"Sometimes," Maasaki replied. "It is a matter of perspective." The older man moved quickly down into the depression to see to the Unicorn. "Dead," he called out. "A Moto, by his mon and his face."
"Maasaki-sama," Tsuken said, utterly bewildered, "what is this? What is this tower? Who built it?"
"I cannot say for certain. Based on its construction, and on the strength and nature of the wards placed upon it, I believe I have a theory. But that is for another time." He turned to Tsuken. "Our adversary will return, and this time he will be prepared. You must make haste to the magistrate and bid him come at once. Then ride south without stopping. The Shiba must station troops here immediately. We cannot let the masked fiend take what lies within."
Tsuken felt as if he was underwater. All movement and sound was muted and distorted. "Who was it, master?"
"Chunigo," answered Maasaki grimly. "He now serves the Horde." He fixed his apprentice with a fierce stare. "Ride, Tsuken. Ride as if demons were upon your trail. If we fail here, there will be."
Two weeks later…
To call the association of men and women who remained near Shiba Aikune at all times a court would be a misnomer. It might seem a good description at first, for there were many similarities between the two. Like a court, those who surrounded the commander of the Phoenix armies sought his favor and to advance their own agendas. Unlike a court, these were hardened warriors and the veterans of many battles. Shiba Mirabu despised them. Warriors were not meant for the duplicitous practices of court, and Aikune had no time for their games. Unfortunately, they had little choice.
"Are you ready, brother?" asked Aikune, a curious smile on his face.
"To follow you? Of course, my lord."
"Ha! Lord, is it? You'd think I was someone of importance," joked Aikune. "I know you do not enjoy these trips, Mirabu, but I would have none other at my side for such an event."
"Thank you, Aikune-sama."
Aikune held his blade aloft. The flames that forever danced along its edge seemed to intensify briefly. Despite himself, Mirabu felt the first twinge of panic. Ever since Aikune had used the Wish against his Lion advisors, Mirabu had feared its power. He trusted Aikune implicitly, but in the months since the Wish's release he had begun to regret advising Aikune to seek out its power. He would never feel at ease in its presence.
The air before Aikune shimmered as the blade's flame continued to intensify. A great hole tore open as Mirabu watched, flames dancing around its edge. Within it, there was nothing but fire. "Come, my friend," Aikune said. "Let us go forth and make friends for the Phoenix." With that, he disappeared into the rift. Muttering a brief prayer to his ancestors, Mirabu followed.
Moving through the elements via the Last Wish was a disturbing experience. Mirabu was never able to describe it, nor even remember exactly what he saw when he was between two places. All he knew is that he invariably found himself shaken and disoriented afterward. Aikune never seemed affected, however, and Mirabu wondered if the experience became easier in time. He hoped he would never find out.
As Mirabu adjusted to his surroundings he discovered he was looking up into the eyes of the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Dressed in a brilliant kimono of black and gold, she stood at the head the large chamber where the two Phoenix had appeared.
"Welcome, Shiba Aikune-san," came the smooth, rich voice of Toturi Tsudao. Mirabu had not recognized her without her armor and helm. "I must say, though your messengers informed us of the means by which you would arrive, it is far more spectacular to witness firsthand."
"I can claim no credit for such a thing, Lady Tsudao," Aikune said, bowing slightly before the woman who had proclaimed herself Empress. "It is the work of Isawa, a true master of the magical arts."
Mirabu quickly took stock of his surroundings. He and Aikune had arrived in the court chambers of Tsudao within Kyuden Seppun. There were at least a dozen miharu, the legendary Seppun warriors who had guarded the Hantei for over a thousand years. In addition to the miharu, there were Tsudao's attendants. The Crane, Scorpion, Lion, and Monkey clans were represented there, as well as several others.
As was his duty as Aikune's yojimbo, Mirabu attempted to determine the most effective way to defend his lord should violence erupt. Such a thing was unlikely, of course, for not only were they perfectly safe within Kyuden Seppun, but Aikune's power could rebuff almost any attack short of an appearance by Fu Leng himself. Mirabu had long ago recognized that his position was largely ceremonial now, but he saw no reason to shirk his duties. He had promised the lady Tsukune that he would not abandon her son, and he would not even though his role seemed somewhat redundant.
"It is my honor to host so prestigious a guest, Aikune-san," Tsudao continued. "Your prowess in battle is the talk of the Empire, and of course we owe a debt of gratitude to your mother for her years of valorous service. Yet I know that you have many responsibilities given your clan's current time of strife, and I too have much that requires my attention. Tell me, what has brought you to Kyuden Seppun?"
"I have come for a simple reason, Lady Tsudao," Aikune said. "My mother fought beside you during the War of Spirits, and she always spoke highly of your honor and wisdom." Tsudao bowed slightly, accepting the praise with modesty. "Although there is contention among some less enlightened minds among the clans, the Shiba family has recognized the legitimacy of your claim to the title of Empress. Though I am not the daimyo of my family, the officers of the Shiba armies have given me leave to speak on their behalf. The Shiba family recognize you, as the eldest child of Toturi the First, are the rightful heir to the Steel Throne. It has filled my heart with joy to see you take your place there, Empress."
The room grew silent as Shiba Aikune fell to one knee, bowed his head to the Empress, and placed Isawa's Last Wish on the floor at her feet. Mirabu quickly did likewise, concealing his surprise. He had expected Aikune to seek an alliance, but he had not expected this.
"Thank you, Aikune," Tsudao said. Her expression was guarded, but seemed one of genuine appreciation. Mirabu could not imagine that her claim to the title of Empress was so secure that such an endorsement would not be quite valuable. "I am deeply honored, but I hope that you did not come all this way just for that. Your time is far too valuable for such a thing."
"Not at all, my lady," Aikune replied, rising with a gracious and charming smile. Mirabu once again marveled at how his friend's once bitter demeanor had changed in the past year, and how much it changed of late. At his best, the power of the Wish had filled him with the confidence and assurance he had always lacked. In his darker moments, Aikune was hardly even able to function, nearly paralyzed with doubt that he could control the Wish's power. "I wish to present you with a gift, such a gift that none can ever dare question my clan's support for Empress Toturi the Second. If you will permit me?" Aikune looked questioningly at Tsudao while gesturing to the hilt of his blade.
Tsudao's entourage was obviously uncomfortable, but she seemed curious. "Please, continue."
Nodding, Aikune gently lifted the Wish from the floor. The flames burned yellow, casting an eerie light about the chamber. Though the room was well-lit, the Wish's fire seemed somehow more real, more illuminating. Aikune held the blade before the assembled group, turning slightly to make sure everyone saw it and saw that he was not wielding it in his sword hand. "Isawa's Last Wish," he said loudly. "The most powerful artifact ever crafted by mortal hands, and the symbol of the Phoenix Clan's unquestioned mastery of all things mystical. As the commander of the Shiba armies and the wielder of the Last Wish, I offer a portion of its power to Toturi the Second, rightful Empress of Rokugan, as a demonstration of the unquestioned loyalty of my people." With that, the flames surged around the Wish and leapt upward to form a small ball of flame. The ball danced above Aikune's head, seething and rolling in a tiny conflagration. The flames continued to brighten until it hurt Mirabu's eyes to stare at it.
And then it was gone. In its place, a flaming tanto was suspended in the air. It slowly descended to hover directly before Aikune. The markings along its blade, on its hilt, and etched into its tsuba were identical to those of the Wish itself. Aikune reverently sheathed the Wish and took the tanto from the air. He strode forward and knelt before Tsudao, offering the blade wordlessly. "This blade contains a fraction of the Wish's power," he said. "Let it protect you so that your reign will be long and just."
"I cannot accept this, Aikune," Tsudao said, her voice barely masking her surprise. "I will not weaken the Phoenix because of their loyalty."
Aikune grinned. "The Wish is no more weakened than one can weaken a river by drinking a cup of water," he said. "I insist that you allow me to display our loyalty to the throne, my lady. Please accept it."
"I cannot," she returned. "An Emperor must rule through wisdom, not power."
"And wisdom cannot be given, only earned," Aikune said. "By learning to command power justly, wisdom flows naturally. Accept the blade, and allow its power to reinforce the wisdom of your edicts."
Tsudao smiled curiously and took the knife in one hand. "What use I may have for it remains to be seen, but I accept your most gracious gift, Shiba Aikune."
Aikune withdrew, bowing respectfully again. "You have honored the Phoenix Clan, my Empress. We are your humble servants."
Unexpectedly, one of Tsudao's retainers stepped forward. A young samurai-ko, the girl bore the colors of the Monkey Clan. She addressed Mirabu directly, which was a most unusual turn of events. But then, the Monkey were not known for their strict adherence to tradition. "As your master has honored my mistress with a gift," she said quietly, "please allow me to offer one to you." She withdrew a crystal from her obi and held it forth. "This is one of the Eyes of the Emperor, carried by all magistrates of my clan. Carry it and know that the Monkey stand with the Phoenix in support of the Empress."
"My lord only acknowledges that which all men should acknowledge," Mirabu said. Courtly etiquette demanded that he refuse the gift twice, but he was no good at the game. "Your gift is far too gracious."
"The Phoenix have the courage to stand behind the Empress when others are too embroiled in their own interests," Miyako replied. "Please, accept this gift as a token of the Monkey's admiration."
"I am but a simple yojimbo, and unworthy of such a gift."
"Take it, and prove to the Empire that you are worthy," Miyako said. "Let the Isawa artificers analyze the Eye and make others like it, so that all Phoenix magistrates might carry one."
Mirabu nodded and accepted the smooth crystal, bowing as he did so.
"And with that, regretfully, we must take our leave of you, my Empress," Aikune said. "The conflict along our border continues to flare up unexpectedly, and I fear my personal attention may be required."
Tsudao nodded. "Be well, Shiba Aikune. I hope that you may find peace with the Dragon before more lives are lost."
Aikune said nothing, but smiled and bowed one last time before summoning another of his rifts. Mirabu bowed deeply and followed his lord through.
When the endless meetings and planning sessions were at an end, that was one of the only times when Mirabu could feel as though life were normal. He took his meals with Aikune in a private room and the two spoke of simple. At times, it was almost like things were before they found the Wish. Those times rarely lasted, however.
"Mirabu," Aikune began once the meal was finished, "I have made a decision." He drew the Last Wish from his obi and set the blade upon the table, staring deep into its blade. The ever-present flames did not harm the table's surface. A tiny humanoid figure flickered in the shadows nearby, one of the ethereal Children that protected the ancient artifact. The creatures made Mirabu nervous; he did his best to avoid them.
For the briefest moment, Mirabu dared to hope that Aikune had realized the danger of continuing to use the Wish, and had decided to return it to its tomb. "What is your decision, my lord?"
"The Wish's power is limitless, yet ever changing and growing. Even as we grow and develop during the course of our lives, so too is it developing because of its proximity to us. And it has come to a point where a choice must be made. The Wish has allowed me to choose its course, but I am uncertain how to proceed."
"What choice must you make?"
Aikune sat the blade on the table before him. Its flames were weaker now, almost invisible. "I can choose to continue to wield the Wish as a weapon, as I have been. Or I can choose to change it, to make it something else entirely. I can choose instead to increase the wisdom of the Phoenix, to unlock mysteries never before known by mortal minds. Once the choice is made, it cannot be undone, and the Wish's path will forever be determined."
Mirabu was momentarily stunned, uncertain what to say. "My lord, you must choose wisdom. Power the Phoenix have in abundance, and the Dragon are all but broken. Wisdom would change you into the leader you have always wished to be. You could bring all the families under your leadership. You could even supercede the Council, just as your mother tried to do."
Aikune thought for a moment, and shook his head. "I think not," he said. "Power I can wield through strength of will, and in doing so I will gain wisdom. But to be given wisdom is to be given knowledge without experience. I will become something that I am not."
"Wisdom is only that, my lord," Mirabu answered. "Whether earned or bestowed, the result is the same."
"Is it?" Aikune asked. "When Isawa Tsuke absorbed the wisdom of the Black Scrolls, would you say that it changed him? Remember that they, too, were Isawa's creation."
There was a long moment of silence. Finally, Aikune took the blade, regarded it intently, and placed it back in its saya.
"Better I think, to seize power and learn to command it," Aikune said. "I do not spurn wisdom, but I will earn it as my ancestors always have done. The shiryo may not answer me, but I will prove to them that I am their equal."
Mirabu stared down at the table and nodded. "As you wish, my lord."
"Come now, Mirabu," Aikune said, rising from the table. "We have more to do today. An Isawa scribe by the name of Tsuken has arrived with a report. Let us see what new information he has to share with us. Will you accompany me?"
Mirabu glanced at the blade on Aikune's hip, then met his gaze. "Wherever you lead, my lord, I am with you."