By Shawn Carman
Editing & Development by Fred Wan
If there was one way in which the Phoenix lands were completely superior to the Scorpion provinces, Isawa Angai reasoned, it was that the obvious affection the kami had for the Phoenix resulted in relatively mild winters throughout much of their home during the winter months. The wilderness regions saw exceptional snowfall and frequent blizzards, but the more populated areas, even those only a short distance from the vast Isawa Mori, seemed to endure the winter with relative ease. Travel was still difficult, but not so much so as other portions of the Empire, and at least it could be done in relative comfort.
Angai stepped into the foyer of the home she shared with her husband, absently handing her damp travel cloak to the servant without noticing. The return trip from Kyuden Otomo had taken less time than she imagined, but she still had little time to spare; perhaps two days before she had to set out to return to Winter Court. It might have been foolish to return at all, but she felt a pressing need to inquire after the health of her husband. He had seemed strained of late, and she wanted to ensure that all was well. She did not have to ask the servants where to find him, either; she knew that all too well.
Isawa Sezaru sat in his private study, deep in meditation. He sat in the lotus position facing the western wall, where a series of intricate calligraphy symbols Angai did not remember from before she left had been painted. Sezaru’s face was set in a deep frown, even as he meditated. “Sezaru-kun,” she said softly.
Sezaru scowled as he turned around. “I said I was not to be int… Angai-chan?”
She smiled and bowed slightly. “I apologize for disturbing you.”
“No, by all means,” he said. He grimaced as he stood up, his legs creaking audibly.
Angai frowned. “How long have you been in here?”
He ran a hand across his cheek, which showed signs of what might be several days’ worth of stubble. “I am not certain,” he admitted. “At least a day, possibly more.”
“Come with me,” she insisted. “I will have the servants prepare you something to eat.”
“I haven’t the time for frivolities,” Sezaru said with a hint of indignation.
“Frivolities?” Angai said sharply. “Is your magic so powerful that you can subsist indefinitely without food, water, or sleep? I was unaware that I had married a divine entity. If only Hida Kisada were to marry, his wife and I would have much to discuss.”
Sezaru frowned. “There is no call for such aggression.”
Angai’s features softened. “Forgive me, my lord,” she said quietly. “I do not mean disrespect, truly I do not. But sometimes, you can be difficult to reach, and arousing your ire is the only way to bring your full attention to bear.”
Sezaru nodded. “Forgive me,” he said. “I am somewhat… distractible, of late.” He raised one eyebrow. “It is something of a family trait after all.”
Angai smiled. It was the closest Sezaru ever came to humor. “Come,” she said. “We will find something to eat, and then you can tell me of your discoveries since I left for the Winter Court.”
Angai seriously doubted her husband had been caught up in his work for only a day, considering how much he ate. She suspected he needed sleep as well, but he was determined to show her the discoveries he had made in her absence, so she complied and returned to the study with him after he had finished eating. “I do not recognize these symbols,” she said, her eyes drawn again to the strange writing on the western wall.
“I do not believe it is truly a form of writing,” he admitted. “The hunt for Bloodspeakers has continued unabated in your absence, although finding those guilty of consorting with the blasphemers becomes infinitely more difficult the more time passes.”
Angai felt a cold chill. “You have not painted Bloodspeaker symbols on the wall of our home, have you?” she asked quietly.
“They are not incantations,” he said firmly. “They are not a code, or affiliated with maho in any manner. It is a sytem of some sort, one I believe may give us an indication of their physical location.”
She peered curiously at the symbols. “How can you possibly think that?”
Sezaru walked up to the wall and gestured at one area of the symbols. “These were found on a scroll in the Asako provinces. After some deliberation, I discovered that the brush strokes on these three symbols roughly correspond to the physical layout of three villages found a day’s ride to the south of Morning Glory Castle.”
Realization dawned on Angai. “There were Bloodspeakers found in those villages some months ago,” she said.
“How can no one else have discovered this?” Angai asked.
“The Isawa are overseeing the majority of the investigation,” Sezaru answered. “They consider it a matter of honor after Bairei was wounded.”
“And how many Isawa are familiar with the physical layout of minor villages in the Asako provinces,” she answered. “But for that matter, how did you know?”
Sezaru frowned. “It… it came to me. In a moment of inspiration, I suppose. One might call it insight.”
“Of course,” Angai said. “Fortunate that you were able to recognize such a pattern.” Inwardly, she was not at all certain it was fortunate. She was aware, and had been for many years, that her husband had heard voices throughout much of his life. For years he had overcome them, but ever since he had begun his war on the Bloodspeakers years ago, during the Blood Hunt, they had plagued him more and more. It was one of many things she attempted to monitor in the interests of his health. It was best not to allow him to dwell on such things, however. “Enough of this, however. My time home is limited, and I do not wish to dwell on such somber matters.”
Sezaru’s frown returned. “I am reluctant to abandon my work,” he said. “I believe I am close to locating another Bloodspeaker cell, if I can only discern what locations correspond to this group of symbols.”
“You can take a few hours away,” she pressed. “It will refresh your mind. And during my travels I have thought of a new possibility in opening your beloved puzzle box.”
Sezaru smiled slightly. He lifted the small box from its place atop his shelf and turned it over in his hands. “You know it has never been opened since Kaiu Ryojiro discovered its secret years ago. He would not tell me how to open it. He insisted I must find a way myself.”
“An odd line of thinking for an engineer,” she said with a grin. “Come to the sitting room. I will tell you my idea.”
Sezaru nodded and exited the study. Angai took his arm as they walked through the house, glancing over her shoulder at the study nervously once before resuming her contented expression.
Nikesake, the Shiba provinces
The students filed out of the dojo for the afternoon, all exhausted but seemingly thrilled with the results of their session. They were young men, only a few years past their gempukku ceremonies, and had been flagged for further training by their commanding officers. Some were here because they possessed a genuine talent for the blade. Others, however, had obviously been sent as an excuse to get them out of their commanders’ posts for the winter. It was an embarrassing tactic, but one that was not absent from even the most somber of bushi families. Still, they were not turned away. There was no student that could not learn something, and Isawa Sawao took great pains to find a way to reach all of his students, no matter their level of ability.
The aging sensei placed his blade upon the rack beside his dojo’s shrine, then bowed deeply before it and knelt. He always finished his sessions with a prayer to the Fortunes for guidance. If he was fortunate, they would continue to bless his efforts and allow him to bring wisdom to younger generations for years to come. A stirring at the doorway interrupted his prayers, and he glanced over his shoulder. “Lessons have concluded for the day,” he said. “If you wish to speak to me privately, come to me before morning lessons begin.”
“Forgive me, sensei,” a strangely familiar voice said. “I did not mean to interrupt.”
Sawao rose and turned, then smiled. “It is I who should apologize,” he said. “I did not realize that my dojo was honored with so prestigious a guest.” He hurried forward and bowed deeply. “Welcome, Mirabu-sama. It is a joy to see you again.”
Shiba Mirabu smiled, but Sawao saw the fatigue around his eyes. It did not appear as though the man had slept for some time. “Thank you, Sawao-sensei. It is a pleasure to return. This place holds many memories of a simpler time.”
“Many memories?” Sawao said with a laugh. “You trained here perhaps three seasons. I have taught in this dojo for over ten years. Many is a relative term. Will you join me for tea?”
Mirabu chuckled and nodded. He turned his head slightly to the left as if he had heard something, then frowned and turned back. “I would be honored, thank you. You are among the clan’s greatest sensei, and the Shiba thank you for your years of service and dedication.”
Sawao smiled. “Teaching has always been my calling. I was just too brash and foolish to realize it in my youth. Such things are regrettably common with shugenja that have an affinity for fire, I fear.”
“That is not universally the case,” Mirabu said, waving away an insect from his ear. “You are among the most serene men I have ever encountered, and Ochiai-sama is far from the belligerent stereotype some would have us believe is so common.”
“Stereotypes have a basis in truth, even if they are not universal,” Sawao said, pouring a cup of tea for his guest. “But I suspect you did not come to ask me about stereotypes or the proclivities of fire shugenja.”
“Perhaps I wanted the perspective of the only shugenja to oversee a Shiba dojo.”
Sawao clucked his tongue and shook his head. “Nonsense. I simply understand that to be a proper duelist, one must not only understand one’s instincts, but surrender to them. And besides, who could refuse Shiba Tsukune? She was an incredible woman.”
Mirabu smiled. “You were always direct,” he recalled.
“And you were never particularly sentimental,” Sawao said with a smile. “How can I assist the Phoenix Champion? I would be honored to do anything I can.”
Mirabu sipped at the tea. “There are some who call you enlightened,” he finally said. “They say that the Wanderer sought you out, that the Emperor in disguise wished to learn the secrets of enlightenment from you.”
“Enlightenment is a term that has become popular in recent years,” Sawao said. “I do not believe that there is a mystical transformation that divides the so-called enlightened from those who are not. The universe is not so simple that a man can suddenly understand it in one fell swoop.”
“You do not believe you are enlightened, then?” Mirabu asked.
“I believe only that I have reached a point in my life that I understand more than I did when I was younger. Perhaps it is something that others would call enlightenment. Or perhaps I am simply an old man either growing wiser or just senile enough to believe so. Ultimately what difference does it make?”
“What did the Wanderer learn from you?” Mirabu asked. “May I know that?”
“Of course,” Sawao said with a sip of tea. “We discussed the balance of the elements, and how a man exists within that balance. To draw upon one is to reduce the other, and back again.” He shrugged. “It was no so different from the lessons I taught you some years ago.”
Mirabu frowned. “If I had understood them at the time then perhaps that would be of more comfort to me.”
Sawao laughed, but it was short lived. Mirabu’s mood had grown obviously darker, and while the old sensei was accustomed to his former student being the worrisome sort, this was something else entirely. “My lord, is something wrong?”
Mirabu shook his head, glancing over his shoulder again, then waving as if an insect buzzed in his ear. “I had hoped to gain some understanding,” he admitted. “I did not mean to trouble you.”
“There is nothing you can tell me that will not remain between us,” Sawao said. “Unburden yourself. It is the only way that you can be free.”
Mirabu was silent for several minutes. “Have you ever known a seer?”
Sawao frowned. “I met Agasha Hamanari on several occasions, but we were not friends,” he said. “Why do you ask?”
“Seers receive visions,” Mirabu said. “They come to them in a trance-like state, or so the records indicate. So what of visions that come in dreams?”
Sawao peered carefully at the younger man. “You are having unusual dreams? Of what sort?”
“Terrible things,” Mirabu said quietly. “Terrible things that have not yet happened, but that could happen. Things that I have feared might happen.”
“Fears often manifest as dreams,” Sawao countered. “That is not uncommon.”
“I have always dreamt,” Mirabu said. “This is something… different. Something much, much different.”
“What has happened to you that could explain this?” Sawai asked. “What has changed?”
Mirabu was quiet again. “Nothing,” he finally answered. “Nothing has changed.”
Sawao shook his head. “It would be dishonorable of me to suggest that my lord was lying,” he said. “Which of course I would never do.”
“Of course,” Mirabu said. He finished his tea and rose. “Thank you for your time, sensei. I would enjoy staying longer, but I have business in Honored Treaty City.”
“Business?” Sawao asked.
Mirabu nodded. “I have to see if there is any truth to the dreams.”
Honored Treaty City, the Agasha provinces
The doorway to the temple flew open with the force of a hurricane. One of them struck the stone pillars outside so hard that it cracked down the center. A shugenja came running out of the temple, leaping down the steps in one smooth motion. A gust of wind caught her even as she struck the ground, however, lifting her into the air once more and depositing her roughly on her back in the cool, frost-covered street. She scrambled to her feet, her ragged breath coming in great plumes of vapor in the frigid air.
Sezaru emerged from the temple, his white mask obscuring his features. “Our conversation is not yet finished, Isawa Nomi,” he said darkly. “You have not confessed your sins to me.”
“You are mad!” Nomi shouted, glancing around for assistance. “Mad!”
“You are not the first to make such a claim,” Sezaru said dispassionately. “I do find it more insulting coming from a blasphemer such as yourself, however.”
“I am not a blasphemer!” Nomi shouted. “I am a priestess!”
“It must comfort you to think so,” Sezaru said. “Or have you actually told the lie so frequently and so convincingly that you believe it yourself?”
“You are mad,” Nomi repeated, her eyes wide with fear.
“And you are guilty,” Sezaru said, raising one fire-wreathed hand. “Confess and name your conspirators, or you will suffer all the more for it.”
“That is enough,” a clear voice rang out across the courtyard. “No more.”
Both shugenja looked up to find an armored samurai standing a short distance away. “Have you incriminating testimony on this woman, Sezaru? Or even the evidence the Dragon value so highly? Have you anything at all to support these claims?”
“I need none,” Sezaru said. “I was tasked by the Emperor to hunt this cult to extinction, and I shall do so.”
“The Emperor is dead, as you well know,” Shiba Mirabu said. “You will not be permitted to execute others without some indication of their guilt, regardless of the station of your birth.”
“I am the Voice of the Emperor,” Sezaru said. “This matter does not involve you, and I do not recognize your authority to intervene in my execution of a duty granted me by my late brother.”
Mirabu drew his katana slowly and held it at his side. The instant it was free of its saya, it was enveloped in flame. “Stand down, Sezaru,” Mirabu ordered. “You will be remanded into the custody of the Shiba until the Masters can evaluate what has happened here.”
Sezaru’s eyes were fixed upon the blade. “An interesting development,” he observed. “I will not submit.”
“You have no choice.”
“Hardly.” Sezaru turned back to Nomi and muttered a quick prayer. The earth around the young woman rose up and closed around her, enclosing her from the shoulders down.
“I ordered you to stand down!” Mirabu shouted. He pointed his blade at Sezaru and a blast of flame erupted from its tip, streaking through the courtyard toward the shugenja. Sezaru held his hand palm-up and caught the blast, grimacing as he did so. Some of it was redirected, glancing away to strike the temple from which the two priests had emerged only a moment before.
“What is this?” Sezaru demanded. “What is this power you wield?”
“I will not ask you again,” Mirabu said. “Stand down.”
Sezaru’s eyes blazed behind his mask. “My cause is just. I will not.”
“You swore an oath!” Mirabu shouted. “You swore loyalty to the Phoenix, and yet you walk among our cities, judging whomever you choose, on some criteria that you cannot be bothered to explain? Any other who committed such acts would be executed for treason, and yet I am to just allow it while I stand idly by? I will not! Surrender yourself, Sezaru.”
The shugenja did not answer. Flame enveloped his hands and began to burn brighter by the moment, growing in intensity until the air around him flickered with the sheer heat of it.
“You leave me no choice,” Mirabu said. He shouted a fierce kiai, and swung his blade in a traditional Phoenix kata. A wave of flame erupted in the air before it, hurtling toward the Wolf.
Isawa Angai watched with growing horror as the battle between the two men grew in power. They had only faced one another for a few moments and already several buildings were aflame, and the temple where it had begun was little more than a smoldering ruin. She had never witnessed anything like the power that Mirabu was unleashing, and it was obvious that Sezaru was beginning to lose ground. Angai had never seen such power firsthand, but she had read sufficient accounts to know what was happening: somehow, Mirabu had come to control the power of the Last Wish. From the manner in which he was behaving, the Wish had affected his thinking, and not in a positive manner.
The accounts of Shiba Aikune after he had first come to control the Wish were vague, but generally agreed that he had acted brashly and with little self-control. Most believed that this was a result of Aikune’s personality, but in watching Mirabu, Angai wondered if it was not a result of the bonding process. The Wish could not have been with Mirabu for more than a month or two at the most, and he was behaving in the same manner. The Wish was the source of the problem, and if that were the case, then Angai thought she might know how to deal with it.
Angai hesitated. If she did nothing, it could mean the death of her husband, the Voice of the Emperor. In her heart, she felt certain that he was on the right path to discover and eliminate the last remnants of the Bloodspeakers from her adopted clan. Why could he not simply have surrendered? Surely he could prove that his accusations were correct! There was no need for this insanity, and yet she could not stand idly by and allow the Wish-maddened Mirabu to destroy him.
But did she have the right to take an action that could conceivably destroy Isawa’s Last Wish? It was a unique creation with nearly limitless power, one that most agreed had not yet fully developed into its final form. Could it be destroyed? What would happen if it were? And what would the Phoenix lose if it were taken from them? Part of her believed that the Phoenix might be better suited if the Wish were to survive and her husband consigned to a fiery fate, but her other instincts overwhelmed that quiet, still voice from the furthest reaches of her mind.
She whispered a prayer to the kami and hoped beyond hope that she was right.
Mirabu brought his blade up in a quick defensive motion. On the battlefield, he might have done so to deflect an arrow or some other projectile. Now, he used it to turn aside a torrent of water that Sezaru summoned against him. He heard it hissing from the heat of the Wish as it passed nearby, and heard the crash behind him as it crushed a home with the force of a tidal wave. He tore his helmet from his head and tossed it to the ground, wiping his eyes with his left sleeve. The heat from the conflict had thickened the air throughout the courtyard, and it was difficult to see.
It was strange. Even in the chaos of the battle, with all that was going on around him, now that the Wish’s power was focused outward, he felt as though his head were clear for the first time in months. Even as he lashed out in hopes of subduing Sezaru, he saw the devastation their battle was wreaking throughout the city, and it horrified him. His duty as Champion was to protect his people, and what had come of it? More destruction.
“Sezaru!” Mirabu shouted. “Sezaru!” The shugenja could not hear him, or if he could, chose not to respond. Perhaps he was justified, given the way Mirabu had acted, or perhaps it was the same overwhelming hubris that had caused him to fear what the Wolf might mean for the Phoenix in the first place. The same manner of hubris that apparently had afflicted him now as well.
Do not speak to him! The Wish was insistent. Do not give him the chance to use his magic on you! I won’t let him!
“Wish, no!” Mirabu shouted. “This isn’t what I wanted! Look what we have done!”
We are saving the Phoenix! Just like Aikune!
Its childlike devotion to Mirabu’s dead childhood friend was touching, but now Mirabu wondered if the Wish might have been more damaged by the foray into the Shadowlands than it had let on. It had told him things he couldn’t understand, something about having had to destroy portions of itself that had been corrupted in the Shadowlands, and that it was no longer complete. It had searched for a lost piece of itself, a dagger that Aikune had crafted for the Empress Toturi II years before, but it had been lost for years, and even the Wish’s power could not find it.
I do not need that anymore! the Wish shouted in his mind. Together we will be whole! You and I together, Mirabu! We will destroy the Wolf and save the Phoenix, like Aikune would if he were here! I showed you what he can do! I saw your dreams!
Mirabu felt something cold settle in his heart. “You saw the dreams?”
You were right about Sezaru! He is too dangerous!
“We forced this confrontation!” Mirabu shouted. “This would never have happened if we had not intervened! What have we done?”
We will destroy the Wolf! it repeated. We will save the Phoenix!
Mirabu tried to bring the blade back, to sheath it, but he could not. It had taken a life of its own, and his hands were locked around it in a grip he could not control. It no longer mattered if Sezaru was as dangerous as he feared. The Wish was far more so. He looked to Sezaru in horror, seeing the multiple burns on his robes and the perspiration that had broken out on his face now that his mask had been knocked away. Even as he looked, however, Sezaru’s features began to swim. His robes shifted and swirled, changing color and size. Everything about the Wolf shimmered and swam, and someone else took his place.
Aikune! the Wish screamed. Aikune, you are alive!
Where Sezaru had been only a moment before, Shiba Aikune now stood. Mirabu knew that it was not real. For all his faults, Sezaru was not a deceptive man, so someone else must be responsible. It did not matter. All that mattered was that the Wish had relented in its onslaught, and Mirabu could feel it pulling away.
I must go to him! Mirabu, I have to go to Aikune!
Mirabu fought the Wish. He struggled to hold on to the bond between them, even as it began to fray. It shouted at him and demanded to know why, but he did not respond. The Wish was surely a miracle, a wonder that could never be recreated in a thousand centuries, but it was damaged now, wounded from its trip into the dark realm, and it could not be healed. So long as it existed, the Phoenix were in danger. The entire Empire was in danger. The wonder it had expressed when Aikune had first discovered it, the innocence and love of creation that Aikune had spoken of when he interacted with it… that was gone. The Wish as it had been was no more. And so it had to end, no matter the cost.
What are you doing?!
Mirabu knelt and placed the blade at his feet, although his hands never left the strangely cool steel. He had failed in every way imaginable, but perhaps if he could perform this one last act, his spirit might yet find some peace in the next world. “I am sorry, Wish,” he whispered. “You are not meant for this world.”
Aikune lifted his hands. One was wreathed in fire, and the other swirled with some energy that Mirabu could not describe. His dead friend brought both hands forward in a sudden display of spectacular magic.
Shiba Mirabu prayed to his ancestors for forgiveness.
Kyuden Otomo, the Doji provinces
Isawa Angai slowly slid the screen to her quarters behind her. The hallways in the small building that had temporarily been designated the Phoenix Embassy, at least during the months of Winter Court, were silent. The shock of the news she had brought with her from the Phoenix lands had settled over the entire delegation like a heavy blanket. Ochiai had declared that all representatives of the clan were in mourning, and the other representatives at court, if they had even heard the news yet, would respect that. No one would disturb them until they were ready.
Angai let out a rattled sigh and sat unceremoniously atop the cushions at her writing desk. She had been gone from the court less than two weeks for her trip home, and yet it seemed that she had been away for months. How could so much have changed in such a short time? None of it seemed real.
She had told Shiba Naoya herself. It seemed only right. To his credit, the man displayed no outward emotion at the news of his brother’s death. He quietly thanked her and retired to his quarters, but Angai could sense the agony that had pierced him as surely as a sword blade. He and Mirabu had been twins, and the loss must have been overwhelming. His stoic faÃ§ade had hid nothing from Angai, and her opinion of him had only increased in the knowing that he would be concerned for the clan’s well-being; there had been several offers of marriage to other clans already, and with Naoya’s ties to the Clan Champion abruptly severed, the Phoenix no longer stood to gain the same clout by agreeing to them.
“Fortunes give me strength,” Angai whispered under her breath. Had her visit home somehow exacerbated the situation with Sezaru? She had not seen or spoken to Mirabu, so surely she could not be at fault. Still, the oddity of her return coinciding with something so traumatic left her feeling uneasy.
Angai genuinely cared for her husband. She did not love him, and perhaps she never would, but she was concerned for his well-being, and she knew that he carried a heavy burden. He wielded a power that was nearly unmatched by any mortal being, and struggled to control it on a daily basis. He had experienced many brushes with madness since she had first met him, but in the wake of his battle with Mirabu, he had been more unstable than she had ever seen. Secretly she feared that one day, his incredible will would fail, and he would be unable to control himself. She prayed every day that such a day would never come, as she knew others among the Phoenix and Scorpion did as well, but as a former kuroiban she was not one to sit idly by and hope that her good intentions were sufficient to ward off dark times. She had taken steps months ago to ensure that there would be a chance for her, and for her adopted clan, no matter how bleak things with her husband became.
Angai opened her desk and withdrew a small box. She had left it here because of her suspicions about Mirabu, and she had feared what might happen if he were close enough to it. If she had taken it, would things have happened differently? Would the future be brighter, darker, or equally uncertain for the Phoenix?
She had no way of knowing.
Isawa Angai opened the box and pulled aside the soft cloth wrapping. Within was a dagger, beautifully crafted and constantly ablaze with a brilliant cold fire. The flickering light it cast was mesmerizing, but Angai only stared at it for a moment. She quickly wrapped it back in the cloth, closed the box, and placed it in the desk.
There might come a day when she would have no choice but to use all that remained of the once infinite Last Wish. She only wished that, if that day ever came, she would be strong enough to do what must be done.