The Final Keeper, Part One
by Rich Wulf
Tamako looked up from the scroll suddenly, losing his place in the tale he had been telling.
“What did you just say, Sekawa?” the old man asked.
The boy’s face flushed darkly in embarrassment. Silence fell over the tiny chamber, only heightened by the serene ritual chanting that resounded from the lower levels of the Asahina temples.
Asahina Tamako was a strange old man. None outside the immediate family ever spoke of him. He confined himself to a remote tower of the temple, never emerging due to some ailment he rarely mentioned. These visits had begun years ago as a formality. Kimita and Sekawa’s father had commanded them to meet with old Tamako, to pay their respects and maintain the bonds of family. The old man was known to be frail and of poor health, and it was their father’s hope that he might make his brother’s final days more comfortable.
As children, they had been afraid of the dark tower and the mysterious old man who dwelled within. What happened next was quite a surprise to them all. Sekawa and Kimita were enchanted by the sad old man’s strange stories and gentle humor. Tamako, in turn, was overjoyed by their visits. Though his sickness never entirely faded, his health improved, and he did not quickly pass into Yomi as was expected. For years, the visits continued. Sekawa found that he now looked forward to seeing old Tamako more than anything else. Though he had heard Tamako’s story of the First and Second Day of Thunder countless times, each telling was fresh and exciting. Perhaps with his own gempukku approaching and so much in his life changing, his uncle’s stories were the one true constant that remained from his youth.
“Forgive Sekawa, uncle,” Kimita said with a polite smile. “This has been a difficult week. Worrying about his gempukku has taken its toll on my brother’s wits. I am certain he did not mean to interrupt the story”
Sekawa shot his sister an annoyed look. She smiled at him politely.
Old Tamako only laughed. “What I heard was by no means witless,” the old man said. “Sekawa, repeat what you just asked me.”
Sekawa looked at his uncle with an uncertain expression. “How do we even know Shinsei was enlightened?” he repeated.
Kimita rolled her eyes at her brother and looked away.
“What do you mean by that?” Tamako asked, setting his scroll aside. There was no anger in the old man’s voice, only an earnest curiosity.
“Uncle, you always taught me that an enlightened soul can grasp what no one else can understand, see things no one else can see,” Sekawa replied. “But most men are not enlightened, so if the enlightened are doomed to dwell in a world where most men are unenlightened, who is to say if a man is truly enlightened or not? How could anyone tell unless they were enlightened as well? If a dishonest man proclaimed himself enlightened, even if he was not, how would any of us know the truth?”
“Are you calling Shinsei a liar?” Tamako asked with a chuckle.
“Not at all,” Sekawa replied. “But when I look to my own training, I wonder what enlightenment really means. Many times I thought myself skilled and able. I thought the tests my instructors placed before me were wastes of my time, that they did not recognize my true worth. I know now that I was impatient, that what I once thought was expertise was only arrogance, and that I have a great deal left to learn. Now I wonder, when I think myself capable, if I am not merely being arrogant again. Could it not be the same with an enlightened man? Could a soul falsely believe he has mastered everything when in fact there is simply no one wiser to prove his ignorance?”
“If a blind man believes that he can see, but everyone else is blind as well, who would know the truth?” Tamako asked.
“Exactly!” Sekawa said. “In those days there was no Brotherhood, no libraries outside the Isawa. The Kami had only begun to understand the intricacies of the mortal realm. Is it possible that Shinsei was merely a wise man at a time when wise men were rare, and that we believe he was enlightened because of this?”
“I think you have put too much thought into this,” Tanako said.
Sekawa looked confused. “What do you mean, uncle?” he asked. “Enlightenment is the mystery of a thousand lifetimes. How can one put too much thought into it?”
“I cannot explain how hot the sun is,” Tamako said, “but I know it is hot. And I know you have put too much thought into this. Tell me, what do you believe enlightenment means?”
“Mastery of everything,” Sekawa answered. “The ultimate pinnacle of wisdom.”
“The peak of the mountain, so to speak?” Tamako asked.
The boy nodded.
“You are wrong,” Tamako answered. “Enlightenment is not a goal, it is the beginning of a goal. To become enlightened is to recognize that one knows nothing, and to begin a new path. To become enlightened is to recognize one’s purpose in the universe, as small as it may be. There are many forms of enlightenment, Sekawa. The day you recognized your own ignorance, that was a form of enlightenment. Do you see?”
“No,” Sekawa said. “It is not the same. When people say Shinsei was enlightened’ the word has a different feel, as if you were to say that the ocean was vast. There is a heaviness to the word, a weight that is not always there.”
“You speak of words,” Tamako answered, “A fool uses words to cage ideas his mind cannot grasp, to contain them so that he need not dwell upon them. Shinsei never called himself enlightened. Other men labeled him so, and he allowed it, for it did them no harm and gave them something to aspire to.”
“So then you believe Shinsei was not enlightened, uncle?” Kimita asked, looking from Sekawa to Tamako.
“In the manner that most define enlightenment, yes,” Tamako replied. “I think that Shinsei knew that there was always a higher peak of understanding. If to believe that Shinsei had nothing further to learn would inspire others to learn, Shinsei would allow them to think so. He did not allow what others believed to impede, contain, or define him.”
Sekawa scowled. “Then why did he presume to teach if the opinions of others were so meaningless?” he asked.
“You are calling Shinsei arrogant now?” Kimita asked, surprised.
“I want only to understand,” Sekawa said. “We place so much faith in Shinsei’s teachings, but what sort of man was he? You say that an enlightened soul knows his purpose in the universe, but Shinsei imposed his beliefs upon the gods themselves. How can such a contradiction exist?”
“It is no contradiction, Sekawa,” Tamako replied. “Shinsei did not disrespect others he valued the wisdom inherent in all creatures. The second greatest way to learn is to teach. Shinsei understood this.”
Sekawa’s brow furrowed. He looked unconvinced. Suddenly his eyes brightened, and he looked at his uncle sharply.
“The second greatest way to learn?” Sekawa said. “What is the first, uncle?”
The old man smiled at his nephew.
Asahina Sekawa’s chest heaved as rounded the corner. He drew up short, blue eyes widening when he saw the assembled crowd. Startled courtiers moved quickly from his path. Armored Imperial Guardsman gave him a quick glance, recognized the jade seal on his haori, and stepped aside. Two bodies lay in the palace garden. One was nearly skeletal, wisps of grey smoke curling from its eyes and mouth. The other had severe burns about his neck. He stared at the sky, his eyes wide with horror.
“The Jade Champion is here!” someone yelled, relief obvious in their voice. Sekawa ignored them.
Sekawa did not recognize the charred body, but the other was familiar. This was Rosoku, the last descendant of Shinsei. His first impulse was to rush forward, to check for any signs of life, but Sekawa was no stranger to death. He knew a lifeless body when he saw one.
“Where is the Emperor?” he demanded in a gravely voice.
“Safe,” replied one of the guardsmen. “The Captain immediately removed him to his quarters until we were certain all was safe. He is under heavy guard.”
Sekawa nodded. He wiped one hand over his face, attempting to make sense of the situation.
“Jade Champion, how is this possible?” one of the courtiers shouted over the crowd. “I thought the palace was protected against maho?”
“Get these people out of here,” Sekawa said without looking back. “Secure this entire area.”
Two of the guardsmen nodded sharply and began ushering the onlookers away from the garden. Sekawa closed his eyes and whispered a short prayer, summoning the spirits native to the area. He sensed the ebb and flow of the elements, reached out to the elemental wards that protected the palace. He found that the spirits were intact, and they were angry. Rosoku’s assassin had perished underneath their wrath, but not quickly enough.
Sekawa scowled. He had always feared such a thing might happen. The palace was protected from the Shadowlands Taint. Wards were in place that could detect its touch upon a mortal soul and burn it out at the root. Even so, the Taint could be an elusive foe. A skilled tsukai could bury the evil deep inside, and pass through the strongest wards undetected. An enemy who did so would be severed from Jigoku’s influence, unable to call upon their dark power without exposing themselves to the deadly wards. Of course that meant very little against an enemy who was willing to pay the ultimate price. It was a danger that Sekawa had long feared, especially of late, with the Jade Magistrates spread so thin and the Hidden Guard’s true loyalties called into question.
Sekawa opened his eyes and knelt, drawing back the sleeves of the charred corpse. The flesh on the man’s forearms was crisscrossed with old scars.
“A Bloodspeaker,” Sekawa whispered.
“We cut out our enemy’s heart, and now they have plunged a dagger into ours,” said a hollow voice from the entrance of the courtyard.
Sekawa looked up quickly. A tall man in blood red robes strode into the courtyard. His white hair hung loose around his shoulders. He looked down at the fallen prophet with a distant, pained expression.
“Sezaru,” Sekawa said, giving a quick bow.
“I was seeing to my brother’s safety,” the Wolf replied.
“Perhaps you should have seen to Rosoku’s,” Sekawa snapped.
The Wolf looked at Sekawa. For an instant, anger flickered in his fathomless eyes. Then he sneered and looked away. “You blame me for this?” he asked. “When the Bloodspeakers rose against my brother, I hunted them. My hunters burned the cult out of cities across the Empire while you whimpered because you felt your authority was challenged. Now, Rosoku is dead and you seek to cast guilt upon me? Will that resurrect the prophet, Jade Champion?”
Sekawa’s jaw clenched. “No, my lord,” he admitted. “I spoke out of anger, and I am sorry.”
“Sorry?” Sezaru replied. “Do not apologize for your rage. Direct it against our enemies. Find the ones who sent this assassin.”
“The ones who sent him?” Sekawa asked. “Iuchiban is already dead. This was an act of retribution.”
“I find it unlikely,” Sezaru answered. “Such elaborate vengeance as this is rarely solitary. There must be others, cultists who still revere Iuchiban’s memory, accessories that he wished to inspire through this murder. Hunt them, Jade Champion, before their success drives them to even greater acts of evil.”
Sezaru looked down at the body of the fallen prophet. For a moment, great weariness shone upon his features. Sezaru was said to be a young man, but the unique pressures of being both the Emperor’s son and perhaps the mightiest shugenja in the Empire had aged him preternaturally.
“What will the Empire do, Sezaru-sama, when they hear that Shinsei’s last descendant has fallen?” Sekawa asked.
“I see only two possibilities,” Sezaru said. “We will find something new to believe in& or we will be destroyed. If the latter will be our fate, then what more can worry us?”
The Wolf offered a bleak smile and turned, exiting the garden and leaving Sekawa with his thoughts.
Three Days Later&
Keitaro knocked a third time before sliding the door open slightly and peering inside with a worried look. He found Sekawa sitting at a low table, reading a broad scroll quietly. He nearly closed the door again and left his master in peace, when Sekawa gestured sharply, beckoning for him to enter.
“The smith who can craft a helmet strong enough to shatter one thousand blades shall keep the Book of Earth,” Sekawa said.
“My lord?” Keitaroreplied curiously.
“The scholar who can contain one thousand years of learning on a single parchment shall keep the Book of Air,” the Jade Champion continued.
“That is the old Imperial proclamation, is it not?” Keitaro asked.
Sekawa nodded and continued. “The warrior who can defeat a thousand enemies in a single stroke shall keep the Book of Fire,” he went on. “The general who can lead his armies from one end of the Empire to the other in a single night shall keep the Book of Water.”
“Rosoku’s challenges,” Keitaro said. “The tests of the Keepers.”
“And the sage who can perform a task greater than these four things combined shall keep the Book of the Void,” Sekawa finished. “It worries me, Keitaro.”
“Do you believe the Keepers are in danger?” Keitaro asked. “Do you think the Bloodspeakers hunt them as they hunted Rosoku?”
“Perhaps,” Sekawa said, “yet that is not what worries me. Each of the Keepers discovered their respective book just as they met the qualifications of their challenge but none of them expected to find it. Kakita Tsuken discovered the Book of Fire while near death, crawling into a cave to bandage his wounds. What if a farmer had discovered that cave first, or a bandit? Would they have become the Keeper of Fire, then?”
“That would not have happened,” Keitaro answered. “It was not meant to be.”
“And that is the contradiction that appalls me!” Sekawa said fiercely, causing Keitaro to flinch. “How could Rosoku hide these books, knowing in advance where each of the Keepers would fulfill their destiny and discover them, yet he could not foresee his own death? Why do we put so much stock in the predictions of a fool who could not prevent his own demise?”
“My lord, you have been through a great deal,” he said. “I know we have been having great difficulty obtaining any leads on the cultists who aided the assassin, but even so perhaps you should not call Shinsei’s descendant a fool.”
“Shouldn’t I?” Sekawa replied sharply. “For a thousand years, Shinsei’s descendants remained hidden because they knew only their bloodline can guide us on the Day of Thunder. They knew the future was too important to risk recklessly. Rosoku threw all of that away to offer guidance to an Empire that did not require it. He murdered our future as surely as the Bloodspeakers murdered him.” Sekawa looked at Keitaro evenly. “That makes him a fool, Keitaro.”
Keitaro nodded silently.
“What did you want, Keitaro?” Sekawa demanded. “Any new discoveries?”
“No, Sekawa-sama,” he replied, “but this arrived for you.” He drew a sealed envelope from his sleeve, offering it to his master.
The Jade Champion took the envelope cautiously. The seal was unfamiliar to him, though it seemed to be some variety of the Daidoji mon. He dismissed Keitaro with a wave and set it aside on the table. He returned his attention to the Imperial proclamation. He felt rage boil inside him as he looked at Rosoku’s challenges. How arrogant, to believe that enlightenment could be found by discovering a book! How petty, to demand the Empire compete for its favor. Rosoku had truly killed himself. Perhaps if that was the sort of man the descendant of Shinsei truly was, the Empire was better off without his guidance.
Sekawa drummed his fingers upon the table and frowned. Such thoughts were perilously close to heresy. He tried not to dwell upon them. Instead he looked back at the paper before him, at the words written beneath the other challenges.
“And to the soul who can master all five of these, an even greater gift the Book of Five Rings.”
Rosoku was dead now. The final Keeper has never risen. His challenges would never be complete. A foolish end to a fool’s story. Sekawa pushed the bitter thoughts from his mind and turned his attention to the letter. He snapped the seal with a deft motion and drew out the contents, reading them quickly.
His dark expression only grew darker as he read.
Toshi Ranbo wo Shien —- Reigisaho was an old city, with a long history of violence. Before it became the Imperial Capital, it had been a focal point in the war between the Lion and Crane Clans. The common folk here had been forced to do what they could to survive in a city frequently consumed by war. As a result, the city was riddled with hidden rooms and escape tunnels, where refugees from the current regime could hide until friendly forces ruled again. These hidden parts of the city were like dark secrets, a memory of a much more violent past.
It was in one of these dark secrets that Asahina Sekawa found himself now. He descended into the shadowy tunnel, wooden steps creaking beneath his feet. A lantern shone dimly in his hand. It did not seem to cast as much light as it should, as if the darkness all about simply drank the radiance and searched for more. Though the light revealed nothing, Sekawa’s senses alerted him to the thing waiting for him in the darkness. The spell he had cast did its work; the kami swirled in the shape of a humanoid figure waiting in the shadows. He caught the faint hint of perfume and steel. The kami also revealed much more the undeniable stench of the Shadowlands Taint.
“You are as good as your word,” Sekawa said, looking about the darkened chamber. “You came alone.”
“I am as surprised as you,” came a feminine voice. “You are quick to trust, Jade Champion.”
“Do not mistake desperation for trust,” Sekawa replied. “I wish only to protect the Emperor. If I should fall, there are many others who would protect him.”
“Like Hachi,” she replied. “Once reviled, now respected. It must gall you to see the Empire embrace him so while they hardly recognize you.”
Sekawa said nothing.
“Or Sezaru,” she continued. “The Jade Champion is sworn to protect the Empire from all magical threats, yet it is he, and not you, who the Emperor charges to still Iuchiban’s enchanted heart.”
“Or even your yoriki, Keitaro,” she said. “Was it not he who helped the Grand Master kill Hakai, the demon that murdered your sister and uncle?”
“If you wish to exchange failures, milady, I will gladly confront you with your own,” Sekawa said bitterly.
“Unnecessary,” she said. “You are a flawed man, this is true. Do not be ashamed. If not for your failures, the Dark Lord would not find you so approachable.”
“Your letter gave a great number of details about Rosoku’s assassin,” Sekawa said, ignoring the jibe. “Details that would only be known to a member of the Imperial Guard or to one who knew of the assassin.”
“And you have already interrogated all the guards,” she said knowingly.
“What do you know of the assassin?” Sekawa demanded.
“I know his name,” she said, “and I know that his assistants intend to restore him to life& unless we act swiftly.”
“Why turn to me with this?” Sekawa demanded.
“When the Empire loses hope it will be Daigotsu, not Iuchiban, who extinguishes it,” she answers. “It is within my Dark Lord’s best interests to see that the Bloodspeakers fail, and the purity of your magic offers advantages that our maho cannot. Shinsei taught that balance in all things must be obtained, and it is a lesson even Fu Leng has begun to learn.”
She stepped forward, into the lantern’s dim light. She was a pale, beautiful woman in ebony armor. Her white hair fell back in a topknot over one shoulder. She looked at him with crystal blue eyes.
“And if I must trust one of the Empire’s champions,” she added, “Who would I trust sooner than a fellow Crane?”
“Tell me more, Lady Rekai,” the Jade Champion answered.