“Why are you telling me these stories?” Kaimetsu-uo demanded. “I wish to hear about the Day of Thunder. What purpose do these other tales serve?”
“Your grandfather knew, as my kind knows, that mortals are prideful beings. You must remember the past, lest you fail to learn its lessons.” Unmei’s words were accompanied by the shimmering image of a golden bird, immolated in fire. “The human Isawa was powerful, but arrogant. Of course some would say his arrogance was not entirely misplaced, for he truly was unique in his time. Yet his pride nearly destroyed him, as it destroys virtually all who succumb to it.”
Fires of the Phoenix
by Shawn Carman
The voice drew Isawa’s attention away from the scroll he had been laboring over for the past few hours. He glanced up irritably, placing his pen in the tiny cup of ink and massaging his hand gently to alleviate the cramping. He had not noticed the discomfort until he had been interrupted, which was only an additional reason to be angry. He had left specific instructions not to be disturbed. “What is it?” he demanded harshly. “I have far too much to do to tolerate interruption.”
“Forgive me,” the servant said meekly, staring directly at the ground in front of Isawa’s feet. “We have received word from the southern villages that lord Shiba approaches.”
“Lord Shiba?” Isawa asked, his voice low. “At what point did members of my tribe begin referring to Shiba as lord’?”
“Ah, f… forgive me, Isawa-sama,” the servant stammered. “I did not mean to… it was not my intent to show disrespect.”
“Disrespect is exactly what comes of paying homage to the Kami,” Isawa said, rising from his desk. “I became the ruler of this tribe because of my power, my wisdom, and because I alone led these people to prosperity. I earned these things.” He shoved past the servant, out the doorway and into the village’s streets, swinging his arms wide to encompass all that was around him. “What has Shiba done?” he demanded. “How has he earned your loyalty? He and his siblings expect obedience and loyalty due solely to the circumstances of their birth! And we have no means to say whether or not they are who they claim to be!”
The servant seemed suitably cowed, but others nearby were doing their best to ignore Isawa’s outburst. He lowered his hands and grimaced. His temper had grown short of late, as his frustration increased. So long as Shiba and the other Kami continued their efforts to organize their Empire, Isawa was forced to remain here in this meager village rather than in his far more suitable study at Gisei Toshi. Isawa was unwilling to allow others to speak for him, but he was equally unwilling to allow Shiba and his followers access to Gisei Toshi. Until these matters were resolved, Isawa would remain here, closer to the events unfolding beyond his people’s lands.
The shugenja sighed in disgust. “When Shiba arrives, show him to an empty house. I will meet with him at my convenience.” He folded his hands into the sleeves of his robes. “Until he arrives, however, I do not wish to be disturbed. For any reason.”
It was only a few hours later that Shiba arrived at the city. Say what one might about the Kami, Shiba was at least extremely punctual. Realistically, Isawa was sure the man had other positive qualities, but he was so maddeningly serene that it was difficult to imagine what they might be. From time to time, the shugenja wondered if on some level he envied Shiba’s harmonious mindset. It was, in theory, the perfect state from which to commune with the spirits. But no, that was for those seeking knowledge, not for those who already possessed it. Serenity was a tool, nothing more, and one that Isawa did not need. Isawa would see Shiba when the Kami had waited an appropriate length of time. After all, it would not do to have the Kami believe himself more important than a mortal visitor.
“Greetings, Isawa-san,” the Kami offered as Isawa entered the building. As always, Shiba was sitting in a relaxed position before a simple shrine he had erected during his first visit, a shrine dedicated to the Isawa tribe’s own Seven Fortunes. Its presence annoyed Isawa, but he did not have the heart to remove a shrine dedicated to gods who had earned his respect. “Thank you for seeing me so quickly. I am well aware of your vast responsibilities in maintaining your… people.”
“The Tribe of Isawa,” the shugenja corrected. “Or the Children of the Earth. You may refer to us as the Phoenix Clan to outsiders if you feel you must, but do not disguise what we are when speaking to me. My allegiance to your Emperor exists only in so much as I refuse to leave the lands he has given’ to you, but feel no ill will toward his Empire. I understand you have held his wrath against us and I appreciate your willingness to do so, even if we do not require your protection.”
Shiba did not respond with anger, or even mild irritation, but only inclined his head respectfully. “As you wish.” He leaned forward and placed another candle on the shrine before him. “You know why I have come?”
Isawa shook his head. “I had hoped for your sake you had come concerning another matter. If you wish to present your case again, then I fear you have wasted your time. My answer will be the same.”
The Kami sighed heavily. “The attacks on southern Rokugan have intensified, Isawa. Hida and his men have been driven from their homes by a horde of creatures too terrible to describe.”
“Unfortunate,” Isawa said, “but ultimately of no concern to me.”
“There have been other incidents,” Shiba persisted. “Lady Shinjo’s followers have reported attacks by the same types of creatures, as has our neighbor to the west, Togashi.” He turned to look Isawa in the eye. “I believe it is only a matter of time before they appear here. It may be days, possibly less. We have been fortunate because of a quirk of geography, nothing more. We must join the fight, for the sake of our people.”
“No.” Isawa’s tone brooked no disagreement. “For the sake of my people, I must remain here. If these forces are foolish enough to attack us here, then they will be destroyed. Your brother will soon understand the enemy he would make in me.”
“And you feel no obligation to the others in Rokugan?” Shiba asked, incredulity in his voice. “Thousands of innocent lives have already been lost. Thousands upon thousands might yet die. I have sent as many of my men as I can spare to join the war effort. Asako has sent many of her people to tend the wounded. Will you do nothing?”
“Not nothing,” Isawa insisted. “I am defending my home. I see nothing more important.”
It was Shiba’s turn to shake his head. “I do not understand how you can so distance yourself from others. We all share this world, Isawa. You call yourself Children of the Earth, yet you do nothing to defend it?”
“I defend that which is mine,” Isawa returned. “No man can protect everyone.”
For the first time, Shiba’s face showed signs of irritation, secretly delighting Isawa. Before the Kami could respond, however, there was a shout from outside in the street. “Father!”
Isawa leapt into motion, crossing the room and exiting the building in a flash. “Akiko! What is wrong?”
His daughter, a vision of beauty by any standard, had little color in her face. She gestured mutely to the east, where a column of smoke was beginning to rise. “Toshi Tetsuharu,” she breathed. “Something must be terribly wrong there.”
Isawa turned to the Kami. “Is this your doing?” he demanded, fury in his eyes. “Did you orchestrate this to convince me of your argument?”
“If you believe I would harm any of our people, then you are a fool,” Shiba said plainly. “This is what I have feared would happen. We must go there, and save what lives we can.”
“You will leave immediately!” Isawa commanded. “I have had my fill of you and your divine family!”
“Father,” Akiko interrupted. “Shiba can help us.”
Isawa turned on her in his wrath, but his anger faded quickly. He was silent for a moment. “I will accept his aid,” he said finally, “but only if you remain here.”
“Father!” she exclaimed.
“I will hear no objections,” he said firmly, and she quieted at his tone. “Sagoten!”
“Here, my lord.” His daughter’s betrothed appeared instantly. “What do you wish of me?”
“Gather my finest students,” Isawa commanded. “We leave immediately.”
Toshi Tetsuharu, Iron Crane City, was so named for the unusual color of the waterfowl that constantly hunted for fish in the shallows along the coast. The term “city” was a misnomer, as it was hardly larger than any other of the Isawa tribe’s many southern villages. The people there prided themselves on the amount of fish they caught, much of which went to other villages. There were few who challenged their claim to be called a city.
Today, Toshi Tetsuharu burned.
Creatures rose from the sea, their bodies made up of dark, cloudy water that seemed to be taken from the ocean’s floor. Their watery forms shrugged off physical attacks, and smoldered as if from a strange heat. Everywhere the creatures touched, their targets would dry out, then smolder and burst into flames. Even as Isawa, Shiba, Sagoten and the others arrived, the scent of burning flesh was heavy in the air.
“Foul creatures,” Isawa snarled as the beasts turned their attention to the newcomers. “Let me show you the true power of fire.” With a wave of his hand, he summoned a torrent of flame that scoured an entire street, enveloping three of the creatures. They screamed, a roaring sound like that of a seashell held to one’s ear, and then were gone.
Sagoten and Isawa’s other students moved through the city in a careful group, using precise, directed magic to destroy the beasts one at a time. For all their power, the creatures possessed little subtlety or sense of stealth; their attacks were direct and unsophisticated. Sagoten was the most powerful of Isawa’s students, but his water magic was least effective against the beasts. Unable to seize control of their physical forms, he instead forced more water into their forms, shattering them from within into small pools of steam.
Shiba moved through the city like a phantom, moving with a speed that would have given his twin brother Bayushi pause. Though no other physical attacks seemed effective against the creatures, Shiba’s lightning-fast strikes sliced them into more pieces than they could easily control, rendering them unable to reform their bodies.
Isawa hovered above the city, with little need for the precision displayed by Sagoten or Shiba. He unleashed massive waves of energy that divided into multiple tendrils, each unerringly seeking out one of the creatures somewhere in the city. Within a matter of moments after their arrival, the combined forces of the Phoenix had decimated their foes, but at a heavy cost.
The entire village of Toshi Tetsuharu was in ruins. The fires that the creatures had caused spread quickly despite the shugenja’s attempt to stop them. It was not until Isawa had destroyed the last of them and summoned a great rainstorm that the fires were quenched, but by then it was far too late.
Shiba stood in the rain, his armor glistening as the raindrops reflected the last rays of the afternoon sunlight. He closed his eyes, offering a prayer for the many who had perished. When he finally opened them again, he regarded Isawa with a terrible sorrow. “Do you understand?”
“I understand that no one else can hope to stop this threat,” Isawa said after a moment’s consideration. “The Tribe of Isawa will offer what aid it can, Shiba, but its lands will not go undefended. I will send my finest students to aid your men, Shiba. Sagoten has my trust. He will command them. But I will remain in Gisei Toshi.”
“I cannot allow that,” Shiba countered. “Sagoten’s father Yogo already aids in the war effort. I will not risk both Asako’s husband and her son.”
“Then I will find another,” Isawa said firmly. “The troops will be ready at first light. Take them or leave them.”
“Thank you, but I fear the day is soon coming when you can no longer remain neutral in this war, Isawa.” Shiba’s eyes pleaded with the shugenja. “I fear that you will regret not acting sooner. Together we can stop this threat before it arrives on your lands.”
“If you would fail without me,” Isawa replied, “why do you deserve me as an ally?”
The shugenja turned and left Shiba standing in the street, rain falling gently around him.