By Lucas Twyman
Edited by Fred Wan
Faro Island, the final island in the Chain of Spice, a day’s travel south from Kyuden Gotei
“We in the Mantis live in two places, Sasake,” my father wrote in his final letter, “we have our home, and we have the home of our heart. Some love their families, and while their home is out on the sea, their hearts will feel distant until they finally see port again. Others have given the sea their hearts: they may be safer on land, but their thoughts will forever be rolling with the tides.”
He wrote me his last letter to explain to me why he would not be present for my gempukku. I hated it for him then, and when the news of his death was given to me years later, I refused to claim his ashes. Now, as I walk the rocky fields and rainy forests of Faro Island, and explore the lands of my ancestors, I understand, finally, precisely how he felt. My heart is no longer here with my mother and sister: it is out to the north, lost in the sea, coiled in the clutches of Thunder.
* * * *
I had not planned on returning home so soon. Our ship, the Seeker of Yomi, was travelling our ordinary trade route, from the City of Lightning to the Phoenix provinces. We were within site of the Phoenix coastline when our ship was stopped by an Imperial sampan and ordered to return to the Mantis isles. Apparently, after the fighting stopped, villages in the north found themselves left with an unwanted, lingering refugee: plague. Only essential utilities were to be allowed in the small coastal port, and any who visited would be required to remain in quarantine for a week before shipping out. Rather than risking my good crew, I returned home with the news to the City of Lightning. My lord was understandably upset, but he agreed that my course of action was correct. My crew was sent on leave; for the first time in six years, I returned home, accompanied by Okitsugu, the Seeker’s lookout.
It was good to see my mother; she had grown smaller and frailer since my father’s death and my departure, aged before her years, but she still carried herself with a quiet dignity. My sister also seemed to age too quickly: my mother fell into strange fugues after my father’s death, and my sister was forced, at a very young age to start taking charge of many of the household duties. She already acted with the poise of young womanhood, and in a year would be sent away to prepare for her own gempukku. She would make a fine wife. Okitsugu showed a keen interest in her thoughts – perhaps too keen, so I took him on a walk through the small town and neighboring estates to occupy our time.
Our little island has but one notable feature: Demon’s Thunder Falls, a saltwater waterfall on its northernmost edge, named for the constant roar of the falling water as it slams against the rocks. As a child, I was told by my mother to stay away from the falls: it was said a monster lived beneath them, waiting to steal away children and devour their souls. My father told a bolder tale: the beast beneath the falls waited for the hero foretold to kill it. I am now unsure if it was a mistake to tell Okitsugu these tales, but I certainly cursed myself for stoking the fires of the scout’s curiosity while watching him leap from the falls into the sea below.
* * *
Months ago, I stood on the bow of the Seeker of Yomi and felt my fear slide away into the sea. We were but a small part of the glorious Mantis armada, a vast collection of ships of war and trade floating seemingly idly in the seas to the north. A mild breeze blew across the breakers – perfect for travel – but not a single sail was unfurled. The ships were arranged in a semicircle around a strange churning aquatic phenomena – to my untrained eye, it seemed as if a stormcloud had been caught under the ocean, rather than stuck in the skies. I stood alone, my crew afraid to spend too much time on deck, balancing myself on the tip of the bow. The light and fury beneath the sea was more beautiful than anything I had seen before: the sea always has a life of its own, but that day it had a fury that matched my own, trapped entirely beneath it. The skies were clear and blue, but the ocean was dark and wild, with life exploding around it: schools of fish, pods of dolphins, a city of ningyo, even a family of oochi, a fleet of the sea, there, as we were, to pay tribute.
A voice called to us from the depths, singing truth against terror:
“I am the Queen of Storms, and I love you. I am the embodiment of your souls, and I have sacrificed for you. Your lord resides in Tengoku now, a peer to my once-husband, for I allowed him to take my place. Remember this and forever be blessed: you and your families now have a touch of my power in your hearts. Be as your lord once was: fear nothing, and always seek greater heights. He showed the world what mortals could do, and you must continue with him as your example.”
As I looked down at the rushing water beneath me, I remembered her words. Yoritomo faced down the Thunders and did not blink once, all for his comrades. I would not leave Okitsugu to face the Demon’s Thunder Falls alone. I placed my swords safely on the ground, breathed deeply of the salty sea air, and leapt from the cliffside.
* * *
I do not remember hitting the water though I know I must have nor do I remember swimming under the steep pressure of falling water. I remember opening my eyes to the thin refracted light behind the falls and peering into the darkness of a strange cave. I could barely see the faintest outline of Okitsugu lying prone further in the cavern. I called out his name, and something stirred in the darkness. I reached for my parangu, secured fast in a sheath tied to my back, and stared intently at the blackest part of the cave until my eyes began to adjust to the lack of light.
It seemed to slowly rise from depths of the cave, though the revelation of its face was not from movement but from my sight becoming clearer. It was fully aware of my presence, the monster of the cave, and it stared at me with dark, hungry eyes. It was a man once, or had taken the form of one, but its inhuman stillness gave it away as something else: it did not shiver in the cold, it did not twitch with anticipation, its muscles gave no indication of future activity prior to moving. It flowed as it stood, a perfect synthesis of form and motion, and as it stood it gathered and donned an elaborate set of heavy armor from the ground next to it. The creature – I do not call it a man, though it was, in many ways, identical to one – had an angular nose and a strong, square jaw, though it was difficult to see either under its thick, matted beard. The hair on its face and head was a burnt brown, the color of golden wheat scorched by smoke and flame, with the texture of wet seaweed. Once it had finished tying the final strap of its armor, it poked Okitsugu’s limp body with its toe, and Okitsugu let out a pained moan.
“Is that a threat?” it said in a deep voice, gesturing at my blade, “or are you afraid?” I recognized its accent – it ended its words with the same sharp final syllables common in Lion lands.
I shook my head. I realized that I truly felt no fear at all, despite the creature’s terrible aura. “No,” I replied, “We dove off the falls looking for a monster. We did not expect to find& you.”
It smiled widely, flashing a set of yellowing teeth. “A monster? You are mistaken then, young Mantis, as it is, indeed, a monster that you have found. My lair is not a place for mortal men.”
It walked close to me, growing larger with every step. It loomed over me, the mad smile never leaving its face. “You haven’t acted against me, yet you claim not to be paralyzed by fear. Come, little Mantis,” it said, turning so its face was inches from my own, “Strike first, and strike true.”
“It would be foolish to pick a fight with someone when you are unaware of their capabilities,” I replied, “especially when they seem eager to do so. But you are right, I do not fear you. I am Yoritomo, and there is nothing we fear.”
The once-man sniffed the air. “I thought you had the smell of Thunder on you,” he said, stepping backwards to place himself between myself and Okitsugu. “But you seem cleverer than most. The Yoritomo I remember from the Battle of Otosan Uchi was more than willing to threaten his betters with violence to get what he wanted. He was, after all, little more than a pirate.”
“No Yoritomo is a pirate,” I replied, biting back my anger, “but you will not rouse me. What are you?”
“An old man,” the creature replied, “one very familiar with the ways of the sea. And one who has little mercy for his enemies.”
“We are no enemies of yours,” I replied, “and we will disturb you no further. Allow me to gather my shipmate and leave.”
The creature raised his hand, and a small geyser of water burst from the ground. I took a step backwards, but the monster only chuckled and sat on it, as if it were a tactician’s stool. “Demands. That’s more in line with my memories of your founder.” He stroked his beard, and smiled again at me. “No, I think I will make you a better offer. My brother’s war may seem over, but your little Empire is still in danger. She is coming, and you have seen only the first of Her influence. I offer your people a mild respite, Yoritomo Sasake, in exchange for a small sacrifice. I have enemies within your Empire, enemies I plan on striking against soon. Two clans will suffer for their arrogance: my old family, and the fools who hunt my brothers and sisters. I am cleverer than dear Air and Fire, though, so you can be certain that my wrath will be much less predictable, and much more painful.”
The creature crooked a finger, and a small figurine of a lion floated forward from the depths of the cave. It hovered in the air before me, a strange statue seemingly constructed from warm, solid water. The monster pointed towards the statue, and continued, “This is my covenant. I will allow you to take it from me now, for a small price, and should you do so, I will not attack the Phoenix. All I require is one small thing.”
I narrowed my eyes and asked his price.
“This island – and the lives of everyone on it. Give me permission to leave to act against the residents of this island, and I will take them all as my servants. I will build them a city beneath the waves, and from there we will plot the distant doom of Rokugan. But you will have bought your Empire time, and a space to breathe in the upcoming strife.”
“My mother lives here,” I replied, a hint of anger in my voice, “as does my sister.”
The creature smiled. “Yes, that is true. You should choose quickly, Sasake.”
I said a silent prayer to Yoritomo, for guidance, and was confronted, vividly, by the smell of the breeze on that strange day months before. I knew where my heart lay.
The Dark Oracle gestured to the floating covenant, “I need a choice now, Sasake, or I will simply consider this an insult. What will it be: the ladies, or the lion?”
I made my choice.
I climbed from the cave into the dwindling light of evening, carrying Okitsugu on my shoulder. I have never seen a sunset as beautiful as the one hovering over the sea that day, nor have I ever been so happy to see my sister’s smile. My heart may be lost to the sea, but I am more than just my father’s son. I am Yoritomo, and my soul is one of courage – my soul is one with Thunder.
* * *
Mori Isawa, half a day’s walk south of the Temple of the Eight Guardians
Shivering, Touzo stoked the flames of his small campfire and let his hand rest on his rusty blade. The Isawa forests were said to be haunted, but he knew for a fact that tonight they held stranger and darker spirits – the monks in the temple had told him as much. Still, a spirit-haunted forest seemed a better place to rest his head than a potentially plague-ridden village, and he needed a new place to stay. When the armies of the Yobanjin cut their way through the forest, they marched through the base camp of Touzo’s old gang, and his fellow bandits were cut down almost to the man. Touzo could count his blessings – the life of a forest beggar was certainly better than no life at all.
Touzo’s camp, all in all, wasn’t too bad – he hunted a rabbit from the brush earlier in the day, and gathered enough firewood to get him through a week or two in the rough. The day before, he had walked north to visit the weird temple to the dragons, one of the few major sites left untouched by the war. The priests there had been kind enough to give Touzo some parchment to use as kindling and a warm meal, and were smart enough not to ask many questions. A cold breeze blew through the trees – odd for a warm summer night – and Touzo hurried to his feet as his campfire began to gutter out. He whistled a popular tune – “My Old Country Lady” as he hurried to his kindling pile.
A woman stood by the fire, thin, pale and beautiful, almost glowing in the light of the full moon. Her face was puzzled, almost bemused she seemed a creature of another realm. Touzo nearly dropped his handful of parchment, but quickly composed himself.
“Would m’lady like to warm herself by my fire?”
The woman smiled, and her eyes opened widely. She walked towards the bandit with an ethereal grace that made her seem to float from the earth.
“That is unnecessary, peasant,” she said, running her hand along his cheek, “I will need no warmth. Do you know who I am?”
Touzo nodded his head slowly, and managed to whisper, “You& you are.”
The woman smiled beatifically and slowly shut her eyes.
“You are the Dark Oracle of Air.”
The Oracle’s eyes shot open. “How?”
“The temple& they told us not to enter the forest tonight.” Touzo stammered, “but I know y’ can’t& you can’t harm me unless I threaten you.”
The Oracle walked a slow circle around Touzo’s fire, and cocked her head, as if listening to an unseen voice. “You are right, peasant,” she said, turning back to Touzo, “the Oracles cannot act against others unless we are first acted against, or we are granted permission by a mortal. You are safe.”
Touzo exhaled sharply, then threw his kindling on the fire. “Thank you, m’lady. To be frank, I ain’t got no love for the Phoenix, neither. You are welcome to stay by the fire, if you wish. Even if you don’t need it.”
The Dark Oracle simply raised an eyebrow in disgust.
“In fact,” Touzo said, laughter at the edge of his voice, “I figured that as long as you’re here in these woods, I ain’t got nothin’ to fear from anything else.”
The Dark Oracle of Air simply stared off to the north, and began a slow patrol through the bandit’s small camp. When she reached the kindling pile at its north end, she paused and looked down at the few remaining sheets of parchment piled next to the firewood. With a delicate flourish, she bent down to read the yellowed documents.
“They’re just some sort o’ letters, m’lady,” the bandit said, looking over his shoulder, “The priests at the temple said nobody needed them, and I could use them for kindling. I can’t read much, so I didn’t bother looking at them too close.”
The Oracle’s ruby lips curled into a hungry smile as she picked one from the pile. “My dearest love, I regret that I will not see you again until next year’s court,” she read, her voice twinkling. “I hope that our lords will grant our request for marriage. Until then, I will remain.”
The Oracle’s eyes widened again, and the second time that night she found herself surprised. “&your faithful Jomyako.”
The bandit turned around as if to say something, a lopsided grin on his face. He did not live long enough to speak a word. His body, torn apart by a sudden wind, was pulverized against the ancient trees of the Mori Isawa, and his final scream was deafened by the hurricane shriek of the Dark Oracle of Air as she tore swiftly through the northern forest.
* * *
“Give me to drink.”
Isawa Mizuhiko’s eyes shot open, his brief slumber interrupted by the sound of his yojimbo’s voice.
“Up, Mizuhiko,” Shiba Sakishi said, shaking his charge, “You need to drink something, and eat. You haven’t done either in days, and the winds seem to be changing.”
Groggily, Mizuhiko rubbed his eyes and slowly stood and began to don his robes. He felt the familiar warmth of his blade at his side. “I am awake, Sakishi. The kami will provide. Are the preparations complete?”
Sakishi nodded, his face pale and emotionless. “The temple has yet to be evacuated, but everything else is ready. Now, we need only to be vigilant, and we will face her together. If we die, we will not be alone.”
Mizuhiko paused, and turned back to his yojimbo. “We will not die tonight, Sakishi.”
Sakishi fingered his obi and glanced at the ground. “My life for the Phoenix,” he said coldly, “two of my charges have died under my watch. I will die not outlive another.”
Mizuhiko nodded, smiling slightly, “Lucky then that I don’t plan on dying.” He slid open an elaborately illustrated screen and stepped into the warm summer night. The moon above was waxing, and its light cast long shadows across the courtyard of the Temple of the Eight Guardians. The massive shrine to the Elemental Dragons loomed over the forest, its elaborate architecture guiding the eye ever upward towards the heavens. Mizuhiko scratched his chin, and turned back to Sakishi, who was peering into the forest. “I hope we can end things quickly. The Clan has suffered so much; I do not know if we can bear more loss.”
Without turning to face his charge, Sakishi replied, “The Phoenix will endure. What is destroyed can be rebuilt, and those who are lost will be reborn. How many times has the Phoenix fallen in the last fifty years – the Clan Wars, the war against the Dragon, the War of Fire and Thunder, the War of Dark Fire, every time the Phoenix rebuilt, and every time new heroes emerged to replace the fallen. In a year, they will forget everything about us – our harshest qualities, our private jokes. But at least we are selling our lives for something.”
Mizuhiko took a step forward and grabbed his friend’s arm, “Don’t go killing yourself tonight, Sakishi. I gave my word to Morihiko.”
“Morihiko,” Sakishi let the name fall from his lips. “You should not promise the unknowable, Mizuhiko. We face an embodiment of the elements tonight. We have little chance.”
Mizuhiko shook his head. “We face a creature that was once a woman, Sakishi. Unholy power, yes, but with the failings of mortal men.” He slid his katana from its sheath, and a crimson reflection crossed the wicked blade. “And this blade has killed one Dark Oracle already.”
Sakishi stared at the weapon in his charge’s hands. “We surprised the Dark Oracle of Earth, Mizuhiko. I don’t know if your magic sword will be enough against a demon screaming for vengeance.”
“This is a Bloodsword, Sakishi. It grows more powerful by feasting on those it kills, and it killed an Oracle. Its strength is immense, and it is all I can do to hold it back, but we need it,” Mizuhiko said coldly, “and Air made a terrible mistake. This sword is a blade of Justice, and she has broken the laws of heaven and hell. She turned her back on the ways of the Celestial Heavens when she accepted her unholy position, and she broke her required code of conduct years ago.”
The southern winds howled, and a faint rumbling echoed through the forest. Mizuhiko re-sheathed his sword and looked up. “It’s her. It has to be.”
Sakishi spun around, “Sooner than we thought! Mizuhiko, you must evacuate the temple! Carry the rest of the priests to safety.”
Mizuhiko stood, frozen, and stared at his friend. “Go!” Sakishi cried, running towards the massive wooden double doors leading into the temple, “You are the only one swift enough to gather everyone! Go now!”
“I’m sorry, my friend,” Mizuhiko whispered to Sakishi. He called his favorite kami around him and vanished in a blur of movement.
* * *
Sakishi stood in the middle of the massive central entrance hall of the Temple of the Eight Guardians, facing the huge open double doors. Unlike most temples in the Phoenix lands, the massive hall was constructed mostly of stone, all the better to support the massive granite and obsidian statues of the Elemental and Celestial Dragons arranged symmetrically around the hall. Small openings in the walls allowed the sun to shine through on bright days, and as the sun crossed the sky, every hour a new dragon would be illuminated. At the end of the hall opposite from the wooden entranceway doors, a large series altars sat, each inlayed with symbols of an element. Hundreds of candles and incense holders were arranged around the altars, and on them tiny slips of paper were piled – the written prayers of the thousands of pilgrims that visited the temple each year.
Outside, the din grew louder: the crashing of a line of trees torn from their roots, the sound of winds howling through the night, the hurricane scream of rage echoing across the skies. Sakishi put his right hand on the hilt of his katana and steeled himself, and the growing winds blew out the candles throughout the temple one by one.
There was a flash of red pain, and Sakishi lost consciousness, only to be awoken again by a sudden shock. His vision cleared and he realized he had been knocked out as he was thrown through the altars, and awoken again by being driven into the Temple’s far wall. He blinked twice, and saw the twisted, impossibly beautiful face of the Dark Oracle smiling hungrily at him. He was upright, held aloft by something impossibly strong, but he could not feel his legs. After a moment, he could feel pain in his stomach, and the frightening, warm wetness of blood running down his waist.
“I mostly just wanted& to talk,” Sakishi said, coughing. Blood trickled down from his lip, and he looked down. “But you seem to have& went and got& your hand stuck& in my gut.”
The Dark Oracle’s smile widened, revealing a terrible maw, and her eyes glowed yellow and red. “Truly, you are an exceptional mortal, Shiba. Not many have earned the enmity of a Dark Oracle.”
Sakishi only chuckled wetly.
With inhuman strength, the Dark Oracle of Air raised him up from the ground, lifting him with only the arm shoved through his stomach. “What do you find so funny, Shiba?” she shrieked, “The desperation of your situation? I will see to it personally that you suffer for an eternity in Jigoku!”
Sakishi chuckled again, and closed his eyes for a moment. He lifted his left hand slowly, and coughed a response.
“The Agasha& say hello.”
Sakishi nearly choked on the words, but there was a burning excitement in his eyes as he opened his hand to reveal a small, broken vial. The Dark Oracle cocked her head, and her eyes widened in surprise for the third time that night. Before she could blink, she felt the once-trapped kami held in the vial catalyze hundreds of previously-unnoticed alchemical casks secreted throughout the temple. A cold smile crossed Sakishi’s face, and he stared off past the open doors of the temple, into the heedless night.
“In the end, we all burn in the fires of this world.”
As he Temple of the Eight Guardians vanished in a massive explosion, shaking the ground for miles around, a pillar of flame cut across the dark sky. The yojimbo’s final sacrifice could be seen from as far away as Shiro Shiba.
* * *
“Sakishi!” Mizuhiko cried, charging through the ruins of the once-majestic temple. Calling on the spirits of the water and earth, he asked them to tear the wreckage away, but they were afraid and exhausted from the excited outburst of the fire kami. Falling to his knees, Mizuhiko dug at the stone and dirt with his bare hands, crying Sakishi’s name out again and again. After several minutes, he slowly realized the inevitable truth: his friend had no chance of surviving. He stood again, rubbing his tired and sore eyes with dirty hands, and began to walk to the east, towards Rushing Stream, the nearest village.
The sound of terrible laughter echoed around Mizuhiko. He spun around and saw the cackling form of the Dark Oracle of Air rising from the wreckage. Her body was shattered, her head hung limp and broken from her neck, and large parts of her body were torn away. Her right hand gestured suggestively to the Jade Magistrate, but no arm remained to connect it to the Oracle’s body. As Mizuhiko watched in horror, he could see her body slowly rebuilding itself. Her head snapped back into its proper position, and she laughed again.
“You tried so hard and sacrificed so much to carry out your pointless duty, little Phoenix,” the Dark Oracle taunted, “but it was all for nothing. I will see to it that you join your poor, dead Shiba friend in Jigoku. I believe the mad spirits of your grandparents are already gnawing on his soul.”
A sharp click echoed through the night as Mizuhiko slid his sword from its wooden sheath. He whispered a silent prayer, telling the kami not to fear, and rubbed the back of his neck with his free hand.
“Shouldn’t you have already killed me with your infinite power?” Mizuhiko said. His eyes narrowed in anger and he advanced on his enemy. “I would have thought you could kill me in my sleep, or called up a thousand demons to slay me and my family. Or do I remind you too much of someone, Jomyako?”
The broken form of the Dark Oracle reared back in the air. “Jomyako is dead, mortal!” She shrieked, “She died to make me! I am the Dark Oracle of A-”
Her cry was cut short by Mizuhiko’s strike. Calling the spirits of water around him, he leapt forward, impossibly swift, and swung his blade in a tight arc at the Oracle’s throat. She threw her hands forward and called up a torrent of air, but the blade still cut wildly into her flesh, shearing her lower jaw from her face. The Dark Oracle gagged and grabbed her throat as black blood trickled down her neck, but where the sword cut, no blood remained. Mizuhiko was thrown backwards, but he spun in the air and righted himself, allowing the kami to guide his fall. He landed lightly on one knee amidst the ruins of the fallen statue of the Dragon of Water, then stood and again began slowly advancing on the Oracle.
Her lower jaw and tongue gone, the Dark Oracle of Air tried to shriek wordlessly, but managed only a strange echoing gasp. Her immediate access to her Oracular powers was gone with her voice, but even without her infernal capabilities she was among the most accomplished shugenja in the empire. She narrowed her eyes and, with a flourish of her hand, summoned a flock of kansen. They howled towards Mizuhiko, each hungry enough to rend the flesh from his bones.
Mizuhiko held his katana high in the air. The night throbbed crimson with the dark fire burning around the sword, and he whispered a quiet prayer into the night before turning again to the Dark Oracle. “You broke the rules, Oracle, and we grow stronger for it. This is your Judgment.” A pained grimace crossed Mizuhiko’s face, and the flood of kansen screamed and twisted away from the bloodsword’s unholy light, like water breaking against the bow of a ship. “The Realm of Demons may be willing to turn a blind eye to its loyal servants for a time, but, in the end, we all pay for our mistakes.”
Terror appearing for the first time in her eyes, the Dark Oracle of Air collapsed on the ground and began to slowly pull herself away from the Jade Magistrate with her remaining arm.
“The letters, the whispers in the wind, the final push from the walls of the estate. So much jealousy, so much hatred. You drove my grandmother mad and then murdered her, condemning her spirit to the Realm of the Hungry Dead.” Mizuhiko’s eyes widened with every word, and he advanced on the fallen form of the Dark Oracle. His sword burned brightly, cutting through the lingering early-morning mist. “But she wasn’t the enemy of the Dark Oracle of Air, was she? She was someone Soshi Jomyako hated, because she was allowed to love Shiba Katsuda, but Jomyako is supposed to be dead. You are only the Dark Oracle of Air.”
She turned and looked up at Mizuhiko, and the hate vanished from her eyes, as if recalling a peaceful moment from long ago. With one swift strike, Soshi Jomyako’s head tumbled from her shoulders, and with another the bloodsword was buried in the Dark Oracle’s heart.
“It’s over,” Mizuhiko muttered, the aura of fury around him fading. He was pale, exhausted. “The blood of two Oracles, and your thirst should be exhausted.”
Give me to drink, the insatiable voice whispered.
Mizuhiko stood amidst the wreckage of the temple, alone in the brightening gloom of the dawn. He raised his sword to flick the blood from its tip, but none remained. After saying one final prayer for Sakishi’s soul, Mizuhiko sheathed Judgment at his side. The early morning heat rippled across the red dawn like waves across an ocean of blood, and Isawa Mizuhiko turned and walked towards the rising sun.