Amid the Celestial Heavens, the inscrutable dragons of the five elements hold parlay and gaze upon the mortal realm, seeking those worthy of their blessings.
By Brian Yoon
Edited by Fred Wan
The Path of Air: The Peaceful
“The worthy can be found within the most devout,” Air said. “To truly venerate Air within mind and soul, the empathetic mortal must be able to change his beliefs to match the times.”
Asahina Shigemitsu ignored the unsettled whispers he could hear from the entrance of the small building. He approached the statue, a bronze representation of the Fortune of the West Wind. He knelt at its foot and closed his eyes. He whispered a prayer of thanks under his breath. He heard the soft replies in his ear as the air kami around him swirled around him.
He smiled. The friendly kami always reminded him of the bigger picture. Despite the troubles of man, the world continued as it always did.
“You are a long way from home, Asahina,” Yogo Adi said as she approached him. Her flat tone conveyed her disapproval and her contempt, yet somehow it was perfectly pitched to avoid any accusation of ill will. It was a wonderful expression of her mastery of the courtly techniques.
“Adi-san,” Shigemitsu said in greeting. He rose to his feet. “This land was in the path of the Destroyers, was it not? You have done a wonderful job in restoring it to its former glory. I was here when I was just a boy, and I believe it looks better now than it did in my faded memory.”
Adi’s cold eyes did not change, yet he could see that she no longer considered him a threat. “I suggest you finish your meditations and leave, Asahina Shigemitsu. This is no place for a Crane.”
“I venerate the air kami, the same as you,” Shigemitsu countered. It did not surprise him in the least that the Scorpion seemed to know his identity.
“Then I will let you finish your prayers in peace,” Adi said.
“Adi-san, I have a proposal for your clan,” Shigemitsu added. He noted that she did not look surprised.
“Then speak,” Adi replied brusquely.
Shigemitsu made a grand gesture outside. “The Empress has allowed War among your clan and thePhoenix. War always becomes taxing on the land as battle rages. It will destroy hundreds, perhaps even thousands of koku worth of rice. I would divert some of the resources available to me to help you harvest it before it is ruined forever.”
Adi studied him without a word. “The Crane mean to choose sides in the war?” she whispered.
“No,” Shigemitsu hastily answered. “I do not speak as a representative of the Crane Clan, only as a minor governor of Asahina lands. I plan on making the same offer to thePhoenixonce my affairs here are finished.”
“Why?” Adi asked.
Shigemitsu raised both hands, palm up, toward her. “All of us have suffered greatly in recent years, Adi-san. From what I have heard, the Empress has approved the war. Despite the legality of the war, I cannot help but wonder at the damage it will cause to both your clans. Our Empire is still weak. I want to help return it to its former strength, and helping you satisfy your honor while protecting your future seems to be the best way to ensure it.”
Adi did not answer and looked away at the statues around her. Several minutes passed in silence. “I will ask my superiors, Shigemitsu-san,” she finally said and bowed.
Shigemitsu bowed deeply. It was the best answer he could have received. He quickly gave his polite goodbyes and made his exit.
As he left, his eyes caught sight of a strange white haired man staring at him with a strange expression on his face. He had the strangest desire to stop and speak to the man. He moved onward. He had many miles to cross before he could speak to thePhoenix.
He had never considered working with the Scorpion before, yet the times called for adaptation to survive. He was buoyed by his success. His feet barely touched the ground as he exited the temple grounds.
The Path of Water: The Innovative Duelist
“The Element of Water values strength, whether it is presented in strength of character or strength of might. That strength must be able to adapt quickly to changes that the mortal must face.”
Fire lowered its head and stared at Ningen-do. “Rokugan is a land of tradition. The samurai would perform the same duties as his grandfather, in the exact same way.”
“Yes,” Water agreed. “This dogmatic response is both Rokugan’s strength and weakness. The one who would hold the blessing of Water would need to honor the old ways and forge his own. This man seems fit for the task.”
“It is time, Mirumoto Houken.”
Houken bounced to his feet and made his way to the front of the dojo with as much dignity as he could muster. It wasn’t much. He had been waiting for this moment his entire life. In a few moments, he would know if his dreams would become reality, or if his skills were truly unfit for the task. He knelt before the grandmasters of theMirumotoSwordmasterSchooland touched his forehead to the tatami mat.
“I thank you for the opportunity, respected swordmasters,” he said, his head still bowed.
“Rise, Houken,” Mirumoto Satobe said. Houken raised his head.
“Your request is an unorthodox one,” Satobe continued. “Generally, the teachers of this school choose those who they personally perceive to be worthy. However, you have been stationed away from our lands for many years.”
“Yes, Satobe-sama,” Houken said. “I served as yojimbo to our ambassadors in thePhoenixlands. I am glad to have served our clansmen, but I regret the time I spent away from our homeland. I was not able to revisit my dojo for many years. In their stead, I practiced for hundreds of hours in refining my personal style and hammering out any weaknesses in my swordsmanship.”
Satobe turned to his side and gestured one of his old sensei forward. “Sanji-san tells me that you have not fully mastered every aspect of the Mirumoto style. Do you believe you are ready to switch your focus, when you have so much left to learn?”
Houken paused for a moment before answering. He met the sensei’s eyes. “Yes, I believe I am ready.”
“It is a peculiar situation,” Satobe mused out loud. “Kitsuki Jairi-san spoke highly of your skill with the blade. His recommendation has brought you this far. However, the word of outsiders will not grant you our approval.”
Houken could not hide the surprise from his face. The cantankerous old man had never spoken a word of encouragement through the years they were inPhoenixlands. Houken remembered many nights where he had stolen off to practice his forms. Jairi had only shaken his head.
“I will do anything to prove myself worthy,” Houken said.
Satobe raised an eyebrow. “You are quite eager to place your neck on the chopping block, Houken. I appreciate your bravery. I was once a foolhardy young man, myself.”
The teacher pushed himself up on his walking stick and rose to his feet. “Our Crane rivals have an interesting method of determining the worth of a potential applicant to their duelist school. We shall adopt it today. Defeat me in a duel of kenjutsu, and I will personally write your name among the scroll of students at theMirumotoSwordmasterSchool.”
Houken bowed deeply once more. He wanted to shout out his thanks, but his voice would not come. His heart was already pounding in his throat, and the sound of his rushing blood drummed a staccato in his ears.
Houken chose a pair of hard wooden bokken, practice swords that held the shape and weight of his trusted daisho. He placed the hilts in his belt and approached the center of the room. He could see dozens of people in the corners of his eyes. The news of the unique proceedings had spread across the school like wildfire, and it seemed that every duelist in the city had come to watch him try his best against a sensei.
He waited and tried to calm his mind as Mirumoto Satobe prepared himself for the duel. He tried to remember everything he knew about the older sensei. Satobe had never been a prodigy of the blade. He had earned his position through perseverance and tenacity. He had suffered countless injuries on the battlefield – he walked with a limp, a permanent reminder of the Destroyer War. Satobe had never let the injuries slow him down.
Satobe made his way to the center of the room and readied himself six feet in front of Houken. The sensei bowed at his waist. Houken repeated the gesture. The staccato of blood in his ears had turned into an incessant roar. He could hear nothing else.
Houken drew in a deep breath and held it. He drew his blades and adopted the traditional Mirumoto dual wielding stance. He let out his breath and released his anxieties away with the air. His heart slowed and his eyes focused. He was ready.
His opponent had adopted a similar stance across from him. His wakizashi moved slowly in the air, lazily tracing some design in front of it. Houken knew that Satobe was simply watching for some sort of tell that would give away Houken’s method of attack.
He decided to make the first move.
He feinted to the right and struck with his off-hand – it was a weak opening, but its unlikelihood was its greatest strength. Satobe moved his blades slightly and deflected the strike with ease. The sensei stepped forward and struck with both blades in response. It was a heavy handed attack designed to break his defense. Houken stepped back and barely avoided the blow.
The dance continued. Houken tried every approach he knew to get a solid blow on Satobe, yet the warrior calmly countered each strike and struck back with a simple yet powerful blow. It did not matter that Satobe’s movement was hindered by his old injuries. He approached with infuriating patience each time Houken danced away. He blocked Houken’s escape with the slightest changes in his movement and constantly moved forward.
Houken could feel the wood of the dojo wall against his back. He had nowhere else to dodge. His next attack needed to end the duel, or his dream of joining the most prestigious duelists in his Clan would be over. He met Satobe’s eyes and leapt forward.
His last attack mirrored his first. He feinted to the right and his shortened bokken slashed toward Satobe’s katana. His opponent raised his sword to block the desperate attack. As the two blades clashed, Houken released his grip on the bokken and lowered his hand. As the sword spun in midair, Houken grabbed the end of his sheath with his left hand and slid it out of his belt. He struck down with the blade in his right hand, and slashed upward with the wooden saya.
A loud crack rang through the air.
The sheath splintered into two and fell to the floor.
Satobe clutched his stomach and fell to one knee. He grimaced and used his bokken to lift himself back to his feet.
“You let go of your blade,” Satobe said after he regained his breath.
“I needed to break your guard,” Houken said. “I taught myself to use my steel saya in battle as well. Mirumoto always taught us to use both hands to give us an advantage over our opponents who only use one sword. I figured my philosophy was in the spirit of his teaching, Satobe-sama.”
Satobe winced in pain then smiled. “It caught me by surprise. I do not know if it is useful on the battlefield, but I look forward to seeing the results. You are indeed worthy to carry on our legacy, Houken-san. Congratulations.”
Triumph washed over his mind but a strange sensation quickly overrode it. It seemed to be a wave of strength – and somehow, of approval.
The Path of Earth: The Eternal Struggle
Fire broke the silence with the obvious. “He is an abomination to nature.”
“He was born with the touch of Jigoku,” Earth replied. “The evil seed has grown within his soul, yet he has not succumbed to its effects. He is among the last of those who bear the burdens of the Shadowlands against his will.”
“The touch of Jigoku is absolute,” Fire said firmly. “Mortals cannot overcome its evil. You waste your blessing on one who is doomed to fail.”
The others called it the Riddle, yet the playful title had never made sense to him. The conversation began with a great challenge, as they always did. Asako Rikate sat with his legs folded under him and stretched out to the kami that surrounded all things. He closed his eyes and slowed his breathing. These rituals helped soothe his mind and helped him connect with the elements. His companions that learned the Henshin ways with him had always described speaking to the kami as a flow of friendly riddling, yet it had never been so easy for him. The elements seemed to treat him with a small degree of wariness.
The difficulty had never discouraged him. This was his Path in life, and he would follow it despite the difficulties in his way.
The meditation began to settle in the core of his very being. His breathing slowed to a crawl, and his mind became empty of all stray thoughts. What remained were the thoughts of supplication. The moments of silent peace stretched out without any response from the nearby kami. An hour passed.
Finally, a single kami of Earth raised its attention and spoke to him. It was deliberate and curt, as Earth kami tended to be. Speak, human-
Rikate could not suppress a quick grin of triumph. “I am Asako Rikate and I am your humble servant.”
The Earth did not respond. Finally, its response rumbled through his mind. You are different from the others-
This, too, was the usual continuation of the conversation. “Each human is distinct from all others, esteemed kami. I have dedicated my life to your service.”
The Earth kami seemed to mull over the response. You are flawed-
Rikate blinked. This was a new wrinkle in the initial stages of the conversation. “I am only mortal, but I am eager to change to better venerate you.”
Impossible, it is beyond your reach-
A bead of sweat trickled over his eye. He hurriedly wiped it away and focused again on the conversation. “Please, show me my failings,” he begged. “I would know my own faults so that I may address them.”
There was another pause of heavy deliberation. Very well-
Power surged all around him as the Earth kami called forth others of its ilk. Rikate could barely see the convergence of power as it formed intricate patterns around him. He was no shugenja; he could not importune the kami, nor could he see the weaves of spellcraft around him. Still, this feeling was unmistakable. The kami of the Earth were forming a spell directly on him. He unclenched his hands and spread them in front of him.
The power suddenly rushed into him with a flash of green light. It flowed over him and through him. He could feel the purity of the beam as a flame all around him. It grew more intense by each growing moment. It was unrelenting, painfully digging into his soul with merciless determination. He had never felt such intense pain in his life.
He screamed and blacked out.
He did not know if minutes or hours passed before he regained consciousness, but the same Earth kami patiently waited for him.
You are impure-
And it was gone.
He could not organize his thoughts despite all the years of intense training. They bounced around every corner of his mind with no rhyme or sense. He welcomed the chaos, for once. He had learned too much from the wise Earth kami for him to enter meditation. Viewed from this different light, past events suddenly made sense.
He was corrupted by the Shadowlands Taint. The power of Jade had scorched him. He had never been subject to the spell before, as no one had even suspected the possibility that he could be affected. He had never ventured out of his homeland and his parents had never spoken of the possibility. It seemed an important distinction to make to a child, that his life could be overthrown by the insidious truth.
Now that he had become aware of his condition, he could hear the tempting whispers of the Shadowlands in the back of his mind. Endless power, it promised. Eternal knowledge. No one needs to know, and your weakness will become your strength.
He tried to ignore the voice. Two questions emerged from the self-pity and asserted itself at the forefront of his thoughts. ‘What have I become? What do I do now?’ The kami would always view him with suspicion, no matter how much dedication he placed into the Henshin arts. His entire life had no purpose.
Rikate shook his head. This was not the time to despair.
He closed his eyes and began to enter the state of meditation. In the void the answers came to him, as they always did. Perhaps it was his childhood stubbornness rearing its head, or perhaps it was his years of training as a monk. It did not matter.
Perhaps he was Shadowlands Tainted, and perhaps he had always been corrupted from his birth. It did not matter. He was still Asako Rikate, monk of the Phoenix Clan. He would not give in. He would continue to learn the Henshin arts and meditation techniques that might help defend his soul. He would not give the Shadowlands a foothold into the mortal realm through him.
And before the Shadowlands conquered his soul, he would surrender himself to the Inquisitors for judgment. It was unavoidable, but he would serve the will of Tengoku for as long as he had strength to resist.
A wave of strength flooded him as he came to his decision. The never-ending dark whispers in the back of his mind stopped, and the tiny aches across his body faded away.
His debilitating sense of isolation faded for the first time since his rude awakening.
The Path of Void: The Contrary
“He is irreverent. Foul. Crude. He cannot follow the rules mortals create for themselves. What makes him worthy for your blessing?” Fire asked.
“He may never turn away from his dark desires,” Void admitted. “However, with my guidance he may shape his excesses in positive methods.”
The door to the Dancing Carp slid open with an ear-splitting racket and immediately shattered the joyous environment within the sake house. A group of dirty ronin swaggered inside, exuding an aura of danger and discontent. Many customers hurriedly drained their cups and disappeared from the main room. Others quickly lowered their eyes and kept their heads low. The Dancing Carp had a reputation for shady business, and clearly, this was none of theirs.
The leader of the band was a large man with thick arms and stout belly. His countenance was marred by scars that crisscrossed every which way across his face. His mouth turned downwards in a perpetual scowl. His eyes were the most remarkable shade of blue, so light they seemed devoid of color. He quickly found the target of his ire, a young man dressed in fine blue silk, and stomped his way to the Yasuki’s table. The Yasuki kept his focus on his work, despite the shadow crossing over the scrolls sprawled across every inch of the table.
“The job is done, Tsujiken. Why do you force me to make this request, like some common beggar?” the ronin snarled. Many of the customers who had stayed began to lose their nerve and they hurried out the door.
Yasuki Tsujiken did not look up. He continued to shuffle through his scrolls with an affected air of disinterest.
“We were promised two and a third for each of us,” the ronin continued as he shook with anger. “You gave us for one and a half for every member of our gang! That is unacceptable!”
“It is both acceptable and fair, Tooth,” Tsujiken responded. “In fact —”
The ronin leader interrupted with an ear-shattering bellow. “My name is Golden Fang, Yasuki! Do not insult me!”
Tsujiken spoke over the large man’s interjections. “Your reward is equal to the performance you gave. You nearly gave away the ruse every step of the way. If I were a ruthless man, I would have tossed you out of my building without a second thought. Lucky for you, I am a man of my word. You may keep your winnings and count our account paid.”
Golden Fang growled unintelligibly and placed his left hand on the tip of his sword’s hilt. The room reacted at once. The customers scattered around the room immediately rose to their feet and whirled to surround the ronin gang. Their hands were already grasping various deadly weapons. The determination in Golden Fang’s eyes faded into uncertainty as he realized the gravity of his situation. He shifted his feet and spoke again, his words much calmer than before.
“Y-you wanted the shipment stolen from the building,” Fang said. “My men did that. What does it matter that some of the details didn’t go as planned?”
Tsujiken finally looked up from his papers. He shook his head in disgust. “You managed to bungle the exact detail I needed most. I ordered you to break into the Mantis compound at the very specific time so you could avoid causing casualties. These Mantis warriors were in Crab lands. It is no fault of our own if their items get stolen from their own building. A bandit attack assaulting the village? That is another matter altogether. They were guests in our lands, and their deaths reflect poorly on us.”
“Ordered?” Fang repeated. His fury began to bubble through his calm facade. “You do not order me, Tsujiken. No one orders my group.”
Tsujiken stood up and began to walk away toward the exit. “My apologies for the mistake, Golden Fang. I will never do it again.”
“Do not walk away from me, Tsuji—” Fang started to say. He stepped forward and immediately stopped. A large Crab warrior, in full battle armor, stepped into the room from the exit and barred their path to the Yasuki.
“What shall we do with them, Tsujiken-sama?” the giant Hida asked him.
Tsujiken paused at the doorway. “They are criminals who confessed to a crime against our business partners,” he responded. “Execute them, then give their heads to the Mantis as proof we have dealt justice.”
Swords left sheaths. The battle began. The door slid closed, and the sounds of mayhem and death were soon replaced by the sounds of the thriving night life in the busy city.
He was walking along the river bank toward the gambling den when everything in the world stopped.
His foot was still descending toward the ground, yet it would only move an inch at a time. Sounds faded away. Color drained from the world around him, leaving only a distressing collage of greys and blacks. He could feel the air echo in his ears as his breath drew in. He slowly exhaled, and he was suddenly elsewhere.
Golden Fang rode into the village through the main road at the head of dozens of well-armed ronin warriors. The murdered bandit leader laughed maniacally as his katana slashed across the throat of a hapless villager who dared to stand in his way. He gestured lazily toward the Mantis complex and his followers rushed the building. The sounds of slaughter soon ensued.
Fang’s gang rode out of the village, their saddlebags filled to the brim. The last ronin turned and threw a lit torch on the nearest building. The fire raged and flared immediately. Golden Fang bared his teeth in a mockery of a smile, and then they were gone.
The entire attack had taken less than half an hour, yet the village had turned into a broken shell in the wake of Golden Fang.
When he had ordered the attack, Tsujiken had known that bandits would be difficult to control. At best, he had hoped for less than a dozen unmerited casualties and less than one hundred koku in collateral damage. He had seen the carnage only as a necessary evil of working with unscrupulous men. They were only peasants, after all. It was hard to hold that position when he could watch the chaos left behind in the gang’s wake.
The world melted in front of him once more. When the world became real once more, he found himself standing in a crowd. Dozens of ronin around him stood enthralled as a brutishly large woman orated in front of them. Her feverish words had the pitch of fanaticism to them. They spoke of revolution and mayhem across the land. It was madness. No one could dream of causing so much mayhem without catching the attention of Rokugan’s great armies. However, such a maddened crusade would slaughter thousands of innocents before it ground to a bloody halt.
It was madness, yet the ronin gathering did not seem to see the folly in the plan. They would die to keep her happy.
As she spoke, the bandit leader met the eye of every man in the crowd. Tsujiken’s breath caught in his throat when her hauntingly familiar eyes met his. He knew with a strange conviction that this woman was the daughter of Golden Fang.
He threw up in the alley. He had fallen to his knees without even noticing it.
“Damn it,” Tsujiken growled. “I do everything for the good of the Crab Clan. What I do is crucial.”
The mantra had always stiffened his resolve in earlier times of distress. Now the words seemed meaningless.
He rose to his feet and immediately turned around. It was too late to undo the damage he had unintentionally caused, but perhaps he still had time to avert the tragedies in his deadly vision.
“Do you understand?” Void asked. Fire refused to answer.
“He is the perfect embodiment of Void,” Void continued. “He is a contradiction that cannot be explained. His logic is perfect yet remains illogical. He is uniquely human, and more importantly, uniquely mortal.”
“I do not know if he will enjoy your blessing, Void,” Air said.
Void looked out at the mortal again as he talked animatedly with his guards. He began to radiate a sense of amusement, and it was all the answer needed.
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