*Legacy of Fire
*By Rich Wulf
Miya Shoin stood before the Imperial Court and spoke in a clear voice. All assembled hung upon his every word.
“Let the people of Rokugan know that the descendant of Shinsei has returned,” the Imperial Herald said in a clear voice. “He has stepped forth from his hidden retreat to offer hope and inspiration to the Empire. He has offered our righteous Emperor a quest& a quest of enlightenment.”
Shoin fell silent, letting his words sink in. A confused buzz of conversation passed through the assembled court, but Mirumoto Masae knelt beside her Dragon brethren in silence. The return of the Hooded Ronin’s return may have come as a surprise to most, but not to her clan. It was the very purpose she had come here.
“What is this quest?” Bayushi Kwanchai asked eagerly.
“The descendant of Shinsei has offered five impossible trials,” Shoin replied. “To the first soul who completes each trial, a gift of inestimable value will be given, one of five books of ancient wisdom. To the soul who is first to master all five of these trials, Shinsei’s son offers a sixth book, the compilation of Shinsei’s greatest wisdom, a sign of true enlightenment. The one who wins this prize shall become the Emperor’s personal advisor, the Righteous Toturi-sama’s guide on his own path of enlightenment.”
“What is the nature of these trials?” Kitsu Juri inquired.
“They are as follows,” Shoin replied, drawing a thin scroll from his obi and reading it before the court. “The smith who can craft a helmet strong enough to shatter one thousand blades shall keep the Book of Earth. The scholar who can contain one thousand years of learning on a single parchment shall keep the Book of Air. The warrior who can defeat a thousand enemies in a single stroke shall keep the Book of Fire. 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. The sage who can perform a task greater than these four things combined shall keep the Book of the Void. And to the truly enlightened soul who can complete all five of these tasks shall become the Keeper of the Five Rings.”
“Bah, riddles,” Yoritomo Katoa said with a sneer.
“Did you expect anything less from Shinsei, Katoa-san?” Doji Nagori asked with a grin. “I think these quests are a marvelous idea. What better way to inspire the people in such dark times?”
“Killing Bloodspeakers,” Toritaka Tatsune replied curtly.
“I issue this decree in the name of the Emperor,” Shoin continued, casting the Crab a disapproving frown. “Let all who would accept Shinsei’s challenge step forward and attempt this quest. The books have been well hidden and bound with magics. There is no single way to complete these quests, but the kami will be your judges. The person who best fulfills each quest will be told the locations of the books by the spirits themselves, and is welcome to claim his prize and title as Keeper.”
“Interesting, don’t you think?” Mirumoto Rosanjin whispered, looking at Masae.
“Foolish,” Masae replied. She rose and exited the chamber, moving discreetly so as not to interrupt the Herald’s announcements. She quickened her pace when she reached the outer halls of the palace, drawing a few suspicious looks from the Imperial Guard.
“Masae,” Rosanjin called to her, his clear voice resounding through the silent halls.
The young samurai stopped. “Yes, my lord?” she said stiffly.
“My lord?” Rosanjin repeated, a hurt tone in his voice. He moved quickly to her side, looking down at the smaller woman with a concerned expression. “Why so formal, Masae-chan?”
Masae’s imperious expression melted into an embarrassed smile. It was difficult to remain angry with one as forthright and sincere as her elder brother. “I am sorry, Rosanjin,” she said. “I should not be angry at you. You were not the one who sent me here.”
“Are you angry with Lord Satsu?” Rosanjin asked, surprised. “Why? You never told me why he sent you here, though I confess I did not ask. I was pleased to see you again.”
“I did not tell you why I was sent because I did not know if I should believe it,” Masae said, gesturing back at the court chambers. “Satsu sent me here because of Shinsei’s quests.”
“But the quests were only just announced,” Rosanjin replied. “How could Satsu-sama have known.” Rosanjin ended his question there, realizing that he had questioned the Dragon Champion’s foresight.
“Satsu foresaw a chance that a Dragon might gain enlightenment here,” Masae replied. “Instead I find only this.” She gestured back toward the court with a disgusted expression.
“I do not understand,” Rosanjin replied. “Surely Shinsei’s riddles are complex, and the path will be difficult, but is the reward not worthy?”
“Rosanjin,” Masae sighed. “Always the warrior. When we were children, we both embraced the tales our mother taught us, but while you listened eagerly to the stories of the great heroes, I was always fascinated by the stories of Shinsei. I have always dreamed of finding a fraction of his wisdom, of gaining even a shadow of the enlightenment he possessed. I do not claim to be truly enlightened, but I do know this – enlightenment is not a prize that can be won at the end of a sword. These trials, these books& they are a sham. Wisdom cannot be granted in such a way. I can scarcely believe that any of Shinsei’s bloodline would condone these quests.”
“Perhaps there is more here than we can see, Masae-chan,” Rosanjin offered.
“I doubt this is anything more than one of the Emperor’s games,” Masae replied. “This is a path of false enlightenment and I cannot follow it, not even at my Champion’s command. I will return to Lord Satsu and report my failure. I pray he will have mercy on me.”
“You are too harsh on yourself,” Rosanjin said softly.
“Not harsh enough, I think,” she replied. “There is no reason for me to remain here. Konichiwa, Rosanjin-kun. I have enjoyed seeing you again, if only briefly.” The young samurai-ko bowed tersely and continued on her path through the Imperial Palace.
Rosanjin folded his arms across his chest and watched his sister go with a sad expression. He prayed that one day she would find the truth she sought so desperately.
Masae had wandered for days since reaching the mountains. At first, she had intended to return to the High House of Light and report immediately to Satsu. She could not explain why she had not done so, really. Something about being back in her home provinces calmed her. The wind in the high mountains had a soothing affect upon her unquiet soul, and she could not help but find this place somehow familiar. As she guided her steed upon the mountain path, she meditated upon the beauty of silence and wondered what the future might hold.
Sadly, that silence did not last. A familiar sound was carried on the wind, the sound of steady tread of many hooves accompanied by the clank of armor. She spurred her horse to a gallop, one hand moving to her daikyu. She crested the ridge to find a legion of Phoenix samurai marching along the mountain path. Ahead of them lay a wide valley. In its center stood a Dragon Clan castle. A large band of warriors surrounded the castle, weapons in hand, patiently waiting for the Phoenix.
The Phoenix army stopped a safe distance away from the Dragon. A pair of riders detached from the group, riding toward the Dragon. Two Dragon bushi rode out to meet them. Masae moved further up the ridge so she could hear more clearly.
The Phoenix leader was a young woman in the fiery robes of an Isawa shugenja. The Dragon was a thin, effete man in fine green robes and a wide-brimmed hat. They regarded each other coldly for some time before the Phoenix spoke.
“I am Isawa Mino, magistrate of the Phoenix Clan,” she announced in a clear voice, loud enough to carry across the valley. “I have come here to reclaim the duty entrusted to us.”
“I am Shiki, of House Tamori,” the Dragon called out in reply. “Your clan has failed in their duty, but you need not share in this failure unless you choose to. Do not presume to demand a responsibility that was intended for another.”
“Failed?” Mino retorted bitterly. “Our clan shared in this responsibility. Do we not then share in this failure?”
“The Covenant is safe,” Shiki replied, smiling faintly. “Safe from the Empire’s enemies, and safe from your incompetence.”
“You insult my sister’s memory and you insult me,” Mino replied. She drew a thick scroll from her obi. “I bear with me a copy of the treaty between Lady Shaitung and Master Nakamuro, the treaty which ended our war and detailed the future of that which you have stolen. The duty you have usurped belongs to the Phoenix, and I will reclaim it by force if I must!”
“If you can,” Shiki corrected.
Mino sneered. She wheeled her horse toward her army, holding up one hand as she prepared to give the command to attack.
Masae had seen enough. She had survived one war between Phoenix and Dragon she would not endure another.
“In the name of Lord Satsu, stop!” she shouted, galloping across the valley toward the two officers.
“Your Champion does not command me, Mirumoto,” Mino retorted, though she refrained from giving the signal to attack.
“Nor do I believe the Elemental Council has given you leave to declare war upon the Tamori,” Masae replied. She turned to Shiki. “Nor would Lady Shaitung approve of you spilling Isawa blood. Explain yourselves, immediately.”
“Shiki holds the Dark Covenant of Fire within his keep,” Mino said. “It belongs to the Phoenix.”
Masae felt a chill at those words. The Dark Covenant was a dangerous corrupted artifact. Five years ago the Dark Oracle of Fire instigated a war between Dragon and Phoenix. Isawa Nakamuro and Tamori Shaitung revealed the Dark Oracle’s plot and used the Covenant to banish him from Rokugan forever.
“Let me see the treaty you hold, Mino-san,” Masae requested, holding out one hand.
The Phoenix hesitated for a long moment, then nodded, handing the document to Masae. She quickly read the treaty. As Mino had said, it called for an end of hostilities between Dragon and Phoenix. The Dark Covenant, which could not safely be destroyed, would be sealed within a shrine to protect both clans from its Taint. The shrine would be built on Dragon lands, protected by Phoenix samurai.
“Why is the Covenant here and not within its shrine?” Masae demanded, turning to Shiki.
“Because the Phoenix failed to protect it,” Shiki said with a tired sigh. “My troops arrived to find the Shrine under attack by a band of maho wielding bandits. We saved the Covenant, but the shrine was destroyed. No Phoenix survived, which was likely for the best, seeing how miserably they failed in their mission.”
“You know my sister defended that shrine,” Mino said in a low voice.
“Oh?” Shiki replied, looking at Mino in feigned surprise.
“Shiki! In the Lady’s name what are you doing?” Masae demanded.
“Stay out of this, Mirumoto,” Mino hissed. “The Tamori have insulted my family and my duty. I will return to Kyuden Isawa with the Covenant at any cost.”
“Fools!” Masae shouted so that her voice echoed across the valley. “Both of you!” Masae removed her helmet and hurled it to the ground. Her face was red with fury.
“Watch your tongue, Mirumoto,” Shiki said. “These are my lands.”
“No!” Masae roared. “They are not! These lands belong to the Righteous Emperor, entrusted to our Lord Satsu, and how sad he would be to see the petty arrogance that has consumed both his vassal and his ally. Look upon this!” She held up the parchment Mino had given her. “What do you see?”
“I see an agreement that has been broken,” Mino said.
“I see a treaty with an unworthy ally,” Shiki said.
“How can you be so blind?” Masae demanded. “Every day our Empire stands against the Shadowlands. Both of us fight this evil, in our own way. Five years ago Agasha Tamori preyed upon our arrogance and stupidity and pitted us against one another. Isawa Nakamuro and Tamori Shaitung defeated the Dark Oracle and banished him from our lands& and now you turn on one another over matters of foolish pride? Shiki, you say you fought the bandits who destroyed the shrine?”
“I did,” Shiki retorted. “I destroyed them.”
“Do you even know who they were?” Masae demanded. “Bloodspeakers? Servants of the Dark Oracle? Yobanjin? Kolat? Did you even care? Or did the opportunity to shame the Phoenix appeal so greatly to you that pursuing the truth simply did not matter?”
Shiki said nothing.
“And you, Mino,” she said, turning to the Phoenix. “How quickly you raised an army to defend your sister’s honor. Why not simply turn to Master Nakamuro and see this matter resolved peacefully? Or was that truly what you even desired?”
Mino was silent.
“For one thousand years, our ancestors have fought for peace. I wonder why they bother when arrogant fools such as yourselves thirst for war.” Masae held up the peace treaty again. “You use this document as a shield, as proof that you have been wronged. I reply that things such as this should not be necessary.” Masae tore the treaty in half, letting the pieces float away upon the wind. “All true servants of Rokugan know where their true enemy lies.” She turned to face the Dragon army, then the Phoenix. “Let Shiki and Mino slay one another for their pride if they must, but know that in doing so they serve the Dark Oracle still, as would any of you who fight beside them. Any soul who fights at their command has no right to be called samurai.”
Shiki stared at Masae with wide eyes, seething with fury. Mino only bowed her head in shame at her actions.
“Do you wish to say something to me, Shiki?” Masae demanded, meeting the shugenja’s angry gaze squarely.
“I cannot believe what you have said to me here,” Shiki replied in angry tones.
Masae scowled and reached for her sword.
“No,” Shiki said, holding out one hand. “You misunderstand me, Mirumoto. What you said to me& should not have needed to be said. I lost many friends in the war against the Phoenix& I was too eager to avenge them. I cannot forgive the Phoenix for being the Oracle’s pawns, but I would avenge them by renewing the war he began.”
“I will return to the lands of the Phoenix and consult with Master Nakamuro,” Mino said in a quiet voice. “The Covenant will remain in the lands of the Dragon, for now.”
Shiki bowed deeply to Mino, though he clearly took no joy in the victory.
The two armies quietly began to filter away, returning to their keep or to the long road back to Kyuden Isawa. Masae remained alone in the valley. A flicker of movement caught her eye, and she turned to see one scrap of the torn treaty caught upon the breeze. She followed it, stooping to pick up the other half as she did so. It darted across the valley, wrapping itself around a rock outcropping. Masae climbed up the stones easily and stretched one arm to catch the torn parchment. The wind suddenly thrust itself against her back, causing her to stumble. She threw out her hand to steady herself and was surprised when she felt metal.
She looked down to see a strange book, covered in bronze metal and bound in white and blue silk. The cover was emblazoned with the symbol of the wind.
Masae’s eyes widened as she realized what she had discovered.
The Book of Air.