One Last Wish
By Shawn Carman
“Enemies of the Emperor, know that there are no secrets remaining! None can challenge the power of the Dark Lord! Rejoice, for your death is soon at hand!”
- Miya Satoshi, Imperial Herald, 1136 by the Isawa Calendar, the Fourteenth Year of the Glorious Reign of Hantei XXXIX
* * * * *
“Almost there, old girl,” Shiba Tsukune whispered. “Hold on just a little longer.” The gaunt samurai-ko leaned forward to stroke her horse’s neck comfortingly. “It won’t be much longer now, and then you can rest. We can both rest.”
It was uncommon for a Phoenix to display such attachment to her mount, Tsukune reflected as she massaged the old horse’s neck. Such behavior was more appropriate for a Unicorn Battle Maiden that a Phoenix mounted on a broken old mare. A Shiba’s soul was meant to focus on more spiritual things. Of course, these days a living Shiba was uncommon. Tsukune had not seen another member of her family in almost six years now. She feared no others remained.
Perhaps she cared for her horse so much because sometimes she felt it was her only friend.
The horse stumbled again on the twisted terrain. The beautiful lands Tsukune had known as a child were no more. With Isawa Tsuke’s service to the dark Emperor Fu Leng and his formation of the Dark Council, the Phoenix lands had become a wasteland. The Dark Masters had destroyed virtually every village, town, city, and palace in all the Phoenix provinces, leaving only a handful of peasants and broken samurai alive to serve them. Once that conquest was complete, they built five towers in the ruins of Kyuden Isawa. Their corrupted elemental servants scoured the Empire in search of surviving Phoenix. The message was clear: only the Dark Council could call themselves masters of magic in Fu Leng’s Empire.
Tsukune had survived several attacks by the minions of the Dark Council. In the last, she had allowed them to think her dead, leaving her burnt armor on a nameless corpse in the ruins of an inn somewhere in the Crane lands. That had been over a year ago, and in all that time she had not been attacked again.
It had been years since Tsukune had heard the whispers of the Soul of Shiba. Their last command had been to hide Ofushikai, the Ancestral Sword of the Phoenix. The sword was now buried in a cave on the coast. If she ever needed the weapon, she could summon it to hand in an instant. In the meantime she and the sword were safer apart. Since leaving the sword behind, she had had no further problems with the Dark Council. Either they believed she was dead, or they had determined that she was not a threat and therefore not worthy of their attention.
She hoped it was the former, but knew it was the latter.
When the Empire first fell to Fu Leng, she swore to fight until her dying day. Somehow over the years, that had changed into a determination not to succumb to the Emperor’s forces. And now even that was gone. For years she had wandered, broken, with no direction, no cause, and no strength to keep fighting. She wandered aimlessly for what seemed like forever, with no notion other than a base instinct to stay alive.
By pure chance she had found reason to go on. Six months ago, she had discovered a cache of scrolls in the ruins of a temple near Shiro Shiba. One of them detailed an ancient artifact the Shiba were given to guard during the earliest days of the Empire. It lay hidden for centuries, untouched because its power was too great for any mortal to control. It was the final creation of Isawa, founder of the mighty shugenja family. It was known only as Isawa’s Last Wish. All who had tried to harness its power were consumed by their own desire and destroyed.
To her great shame, Tsukune’s first response was fear. Even if she could find and wield the Wish, she would not know what to do with it. She doubted that and artifact created by man could truly challenge the power of a god, but then again did not Shiba – himself – bend the knee to Isawa?
Even if she could command the Wish, she had no idea how to use it wisely. Tsukune was warrior-born and had never entertained any notions to the contrary. She was not wise enough to make such a decision. Isawa Tadaka would have comprehended its arcane mysteries, but he was dead. Every day her soul ached with the pain of his absence. Perhaps at long last she could see him once again.
There was another sickening lurch as Tsukune’s horse staggered again. She reached out to stroke its neck, but suddenly found herself pitching forward as the beast collapsed underneath her. Her training took over as she tucked neatly into a roll and shrugged off the worst of the impact. Her shoulder grazed sharp outcropping of rock as she rolled across the rocky ground, gasping in pain.
Tsukune climbed painfully to her feet, wincing at the slightest movement of her shoulder. A glance at her mount told her that its wound was bleeding quite freely. The horse’s eyes rolled back in its head from exhaustion. There was nothing she could do. Tsukune knelt and stroked the animal’s mane as its breathing slowed. One hoof feebly kicked at the rocks, and the horse breathed its last. A tear rolled down Tsukune’s cheek. Strange, that she should feel such sorrow over an animal. Tsukune thought that death had ceased to affect her, but this steed had been a loyal and constant companion for many long months. The thought of losing one more friend filled Tsukune’s heart with sorrow.
“You will be the last,” she whispered. “I will not lose anyone else, no matter the cost.” She glanced at the mountain looming in the distance. Her destination was near.
Gathering her things, Tsukune Set out for the mountain, her mouth set in a thin, determined line.
* * * * *
The entrance to the chamber was where the scroll had indicated it would be, but the entrance had collapsed long ago, leaving a pile of rubble that was indistinguishable from the rest of the mountainside unless one knew where to look. It took Tsukune several days to clear a large enough passage to gain entrance to the caverns below. It was exhausting work, and she had not brought enough rations to last the entire time. The thought of what awaited gave her the strength to continue.
It was near sunset of the third day when the rubble fell away from the entrance enough so that Tsukune could shimmy through. Clutching the scroll that had led her here in one hand and a small box in the other, she entered the tunnel.
The darkness was absolute. For a moment, Tsukune feared that she would be unable to function. After coming so far, the thought of scrounging around in the wilderness for a torch was exasperating. In a few moments, though, she began to see the outlines of things around her. It was not her eyes adjusting to the darkness, but rather a light in the distance. Her heart leapt with hope as she realized she had reached the end of her journey.
Crawling out of the tunnel into a larger chamber, Tsukune nearly tripped over the long-dead corpses of several Shiba guardsmen. From the look of them, they had triggered the cave-in that hid this chamber. They died in the final fulfillment of their duty, as honorable samurai. Tsukune whispered a brief prayer to the ancestors of the samurai and moved on. She could do no more for them.
She made her way cautiously down the wide hallways, following the light that radiated through the entire complex. After all this time, having come so very far, she found herself strangely frightened by what she was about to face. The possibility of success was intoxicating, but the horror of failure was such that she hesitated, uncertain whether or not to continue. She clutched the box in her hand tightly, and found the strength to continue.
The chamber at the end of the hall was smaller than she had imagined. It was almost spherical in shape, and seemed somewhat too smooth, too perfect. The center of the room was dominated by a slim pillar that vaguely resembled an altar. There, atop the pillar, a glowing orb revolved very slowly. Within its luminescence, Tsukune could vaguely make out some sort of latticework or pattern. Now that she looked closer, she could see that the orb did not rest on the pillar, but levitated a few inches above it.
Isawa’s Last Wish. The most powerful artifact ever made by mortal hands. It had been crafted during the first days of the Empire by Isawa, with the aid of such famous shugenja as Isawa Akiko, Asako Sagoten, and Isawa Yogo. After Isawa’s death on the first Day of Thunder, it was never finished. Rather than try to harness the power they could not understand, the Phoenix locked the thing away under the control of the Shiba, the only family who could resist the siren call of its power.
“Who are you?” The voice came into her mind. “What happened to the others?” It sounded strangely childlike, almost innocent. There was no accusation in its tone, merely curiosity and a deep, deep loneliness.
“I. . . I am Shiba Tsukune, last of the Shiba family,” she answered, unsure of what she would say until the words spilled from her mouth.
“The last Shiba? Where did the Shiba go? I loved them. They were kind.” The voice was mournful. it was definitely unsettling.
“I believe that I am the last. I have not found any other uncorrupted Phoenix samurai in many years.”
“What of the Isawa?” it asked desperately. “What of my father’s family?”
“They are now ruled by an evil man named Tsuke,” Tsukune said.
“Then I will never be finished.” There was a sorrow in the thing’s voice that caused Tsukune’s heart to ache. She too knew that sorrow. “I am forever incomplete.”
She nodded mutely. “So am I,” she said in little more than a whisper. “I have lost a part of myself, and I am empty without it.”
“How did that happen? I thought humans were born complete.”
In spite of herself, Tsukune smiled. “In truth, we are complete. Or at least we think we are until we find something that we didn’t realize we were missing. That happened to me.”
“That sounds interesting,” it said. “What did you find?”
Tsukune opened the box and poured a small gemstone into her hand. It was pale orange, shot through with streaks of red. Once it might have matched her kimono. It was the only thing of beauty she had left. “I found someone I loved more than life itself. He gave this to me to remind me of what we shared. But he died, and I find myself a little more lost each day without him.”
“I’m sorry, Tsukune,” the Wish said. “I know how that feels. I can see him in your memories. He reminds me of my father.”
“I don’t know the limits of your power, but I’ve come to ask you to return him to me.” Tsukune saw no reason to avoid the question.
“Do you want me to fix Tadaka? Do you want me to return him from the dead?”
“Can you do this thing?”
There was a moment of silence. “I have always sensed the other realms. I have reached out to them before, but never brought something back. It might be interesting to try.”
“Please,” Tsukune breathed. “I beg you.”
“I will do it,” the voice said confidently. Then, after a moment, “I suppose I will need something to put his soul in, if I find it. Perhaps one of those bodies down the hall. . .”
“No!” cried Tsukune. “Use my body if you must, but do not put his soul in something dead!”
“I am only teasing,” he Wish said with a playful giggle. “I think I have an idea. Touch me, Shiba Tsukune. I will need your help.”
Tsukune extended herself, pressing her fingertips to the surface of the Wish. It felt warm, like a living thing. The Last Wish lazily drifted higher in the air, rolling forward into her palm. It began to glow brightly, filling the chamber with a blinding light. It seemed to be growing larger, but Tsukune could no longer look directly at it. Finally, she had to avert her eyes as it continued to grow brighter. Looking away, she heard a tearing sound, and then a dull echo, as if she were listening to the sea from a great distance.
Suddenly the chamber grew very quiet. Tsukune became aware that she had been holding her breath. She could no longer feel the Wish’s warmth in her hand. She became aware that elsewhere in the chamber there was a deep, heavy breathing sound. Fearfully, she raised her head to look. A tall man in a wide straw jingasa stood in the chamber, staring at his hands in open wonder. A cloth scarf hung about his throat, revealing a handsome face that she knew only too well.
“Tadaka!” she breathed. “You came back!”
The figure looked up, smiling at Tsukune. His eyes were pure white and burned with energy.
The glowing figure looked at her quizzically. “Tsukune?” the Wish said through Tadaka’s lips. “Is this the right. . . am I the right person?”
“What have you done?” Tsukune asked, falling to her knees before the apparition.
“I could not bring Tadaka back,” the Wish said. “But I found his spirit. He hovers near you always, Tsukune, protecting you. Tadaka is a part of me now.”
“Your voice sounds different,” Tsukune said. “You sound like Tadaka.”
The Wish nodded. “Tadaka has completed me. Only he could do so; even in death his wisdom is as great as the first Phoenix Thunder, my father, my creator. I was once Isawa’s Last Wish, a wish that mortal and kami could come to a greater understanding with one another. Now we are Tadaka’s Last Wish, a wish that the shadow of Fu Leng be wiped away from this world forever.”
Tsukune’s expression became grim. “So you plan to fight the Emperor, then?”
“Not right away,” the Wish said. “We remember Tadaka’s death all too clearly. We will be more careful before we challenge Fu Leng. It may be a long, long time.”
Tsukune nodded in relief.
The Wish’s eyes became vacant for a moment. “Tadaka says he wants to thank you for never losing hope, Tsukune. He says. . . he says that he is sorry that he never found the words in life to tell you how he feels. He loves you very much, Tsukune. Isn’t that nice?” The Wish smiled a pleasant, innocent smile.
Tears of joy streamed down Tsukune’s face. “Thank you,” she whispered.
“Thank you,” the Wish said. “We would not be complete without you.”
“What will you do next?”
“We want to learn what we must do to fix the Empire,” the Wish said, extending one hand. “Will you help us, Tsukune?”
Tsukune nodded wordlessly and clasped the Last Wish’s hand in her own. Whether or not the Wish carried the soul of Isawa Tadaka would be discovered in time. For now, he was close enough