Fire and Air
by Rich Wulf and Shawn Carman
“The serpent bared its fiery fangs and hissed a terrible scream toward the two shugenja.”
Fire and Air
Isawa Nakamuro ran his hand across the stone wall, marveling at its smoothness and rich golden color. The Master of Air looked up, and at his command a sparkling mote of fire appeared and spiraled up into the darkness, lighting the cavern. The walls seemed to go up forever. Here and there, circular holes broke the perfect smoothness of the wall; each was roughly three feet in diameter. The yellow gleam of two large eyes shone in one of the nearest, reflecting the light of Nakamuro’s wisp.
“Konnichiwa,” Nakamuro said, bowing slightly and smiling.
A large, flat head emerged from the hole, surrounded by a mane of thick, wiry hair. The creature blinked down at Nakamuro with huge yellow eyes. “You spend much time in Cavern of Gold, Isawa Nakamuro,” the creature said. “Zelgk would think you were shaman in human shape.” A low rumble issued from the creature’s throat. A less experienced person might think the noise threatening; from the weeks he had spent among the zokujin, Nakamuro recognized the sound as laughter.
Nakamuro shrugged. “This is a beautiful place, Zelgk-san,” the Phoenix said. “I have never seen stone quite like this.”
The creature nodded. “This cavern is sacred place,” the zokujin agreed. “Voice of earth spirits strong here.” Zelgk’s eyes flicked upward; it watched Nakamuro’s flickering fire spirit with open curiosity.
“I can hear them,” Nakamuro said. Like all shugenja, Nakamuro could hear the voices of the spirits of fire, earth, air, and water when he listened. Though his mastery of earth magic was fairly weak, even he could sense the power in this place. Though he had not seen the light of the sun since the Battle of Snow and Fire, being in a place like this made him feel much more comfortable about his fate.
With a single agile bound, Zelgk leapt from his perch and landed in a squat at Nakamuro’s side. “Your friend does not like this place,” Zelgk said, peering up at the taller Phoenix.
Nakamuro frowned. “Shaitung is not my friend,” he said. “I don’t know if anyone could call her friend.”
Zelgk nodded slowly. “She is solitary, like the mountain,” he said. “Hard, cold, unyielding. Is great shame. In she had been a zokujin, she would be mighty shaman.”
“Among our people, she is a mighty shaman,” Nakamuro said. “She defeated five of the greatest. . . shamans. . . in our human Empire.”
Zelgk shook his massive head slowly. “Shaitung told me,” he said. “Told me you were one of them.” The zokujin snatched a small chunk of rock between two fingers, considered it for a moment, then popped it into his mouth. He peered up at Nakamuro speculatively.
“It’s true,” Nakamuro nodded. “We were enemies, before we came here. Our clans were at war with one another. Clans. . . are similar to your tribes.’,
The zokujin blinked. “Zelgk know that,” he said. “Cannot live underneath Empire for eleven centuries and not learn something about it. You think we can learn your language, but not know about clans?”
“I guess I didn’t think about it at all,” Nakamuro laughed. “Please forgive me.”
Zelgk nodded slowly. “Continue story. Nakamuro seem like peaceful man. Why you fight against Shaitung?”
“It was not my decision,” Nakamuro said. “I had hoped we could resolve the conflict between our two clans without incident, but there were others who disagreed. Some among my clan would blame Shaitung for her father’s crimes.”
“The Dark Oracle of Fire,” the zokujin said, its eyes narrowing. “The one my people fight against.”
“Yes,” Nakamuro replied. “Has there been any progress?”
“No,” the zokujin said. “Tribe of Zesh loses ground every day to Tamori and his terrors. Retreat deeper into the earth with each day. Soon, we fear even sacred Cavern of Gold will be lost.” The zokujin looked up at Nakamuro with wide, golden eyes. “Then all will be lost.”
“You should let us help you,t’ Nakamuro said firmly. “Shaitung and I are both powerful shugenja. Our magic could help turn the tide against your enemies.~’
Zelgk gave a short, growling laugh. “Humans need light to travel through caves.” He gestured at the flame fluttering near Nakamuro’s head. “Demons of fire would see you in caves long way away. Would be more hindrance than help. If want to help, stay here in caves, be ready to fight when terrors finally come.~,
“If you’re certain,” Nakamuro said. “I still think that there must be some way we can help.”
“And of course your own opinions outweigh all others, no matter how knowledgeable,” said a cold voice from the opposite side of the chamber. “How like a Phoenix.”
A flickering light appeared at the voice’s source, illuminating the figure of Tamori Shaitung. She was tall, lithe, and exotic. Her features were sharp, but elegant. She strode across the golden cavern toward Nakamuro; the sound of scuttling claws echoed behind her. Like Nakamuro, she was not allowed to go anywhere in the caverns without a zokujin guardian.
As much as it disturbed Nakamuro to think of it, Shaitung still considered him an enemy. On the surface far above this cavern, their clans – Phoenix and Dragon – were at war. Nakamuro had never had much use for armed conflict, but the choice to enter the war had not been his own. He was a member of the Council of Masters, the most powerful and prominent shugenja in the Phoenix. When his clan had need, he could do no less than answer, even if that meant going into battle. He had no hatred for the Dragon Clan, and found the entire war unfortunate. He had learned early in life that those who made war reaped only death. During the War of Spirits, the soldiers of the Steel Chrysanthemum kidnapped a number of Phoenix children in an attempt to extort their clan’s cooperation. The soldiers murdered Nakamuro’s first love, Isawa Yaruko, daughter of Master of Earth Isawa Taeruko. Though he was only a boy at the time, Nakamuro blamed himself for not being able to save Yaruko. He felt that Taeruko blamed him as well, causing many of his arguments for peaceful resolution to go unheard by the other Council members.
Shaitung, on the other hand, bore great malice toward the Phoenix. Her father had been Agasha Tamori, the last Dragon daimyo of the Agasha family. Thirty years ago, the Agasha family had defied her father’s wishes and defected to the Phoenix. Her father embarked on a great crusade to force the Agasha to return, allying himself with Hantei XVI, the Steel Chrysanthemum, during the War of Spirits. Tamori’s advice turned the Hantei’s armies against the Phoenix Clan.
When a treaty was forged to end the war, the Steel Chrysanthemum rewarded his lost servant by demanding a family be founded in Tamori’s name. Ironically, Agasha Tamori vanished before he could enjoy his reward. Rumors flew that Tamori had been a maho-tsukai who finally found his Taint too difficult to disguise, and had taken his own life in shame. Even the Dragon generally regarded the Tamori family with disdain and suspicion for their namesake’s connection to the Steel Chrysanthemum. This was the legacy Shaitung, Tamori’s only child, had inherited. Circumstance had forged her into a strong leader and a powerful shugenja, but had also filled her with hatred.
The recent war between Dragon and Phoenix had begun when volcanic eruptions in Dragon territory forced their peasants to seek farmland in lands the Phoenix considered their own. What could have been ended through diplomacy burgeoned into open war due to the lingering resentment between the Tamori and Isawa families. The war came to a climax during the Battle of Snow and Fire. Tamori Shaitung stepped forward to challenge the entire Council to personal combat. There was no way a lone shugenja could face the entire Council and survive, but Shaitung had not intended to survive. Through a combination of preparation and determination she managed to drag the entire group into a cavern deep under the earth.
There, Shaitung and the Council were met with a surprise. The rumors of Agasha Tamori’s corruption were not only true, but were vastly understated. Tamori had vanished to answer a new calling – the calling of Jigoku itself. Retreating to the deep caves beneath the mountains, he had become the Dark Oracle of Fire. It had been he who had fanned the flames of war between Dragon and Phoenix by causing the volcanic eruptions. The entire war had been engineered to derail the Phoenix Clan’s planned campaign against the Shadowlands. Tamori was prepared to do anything to destroy such a threat to his new power base – even sacrifice his own family.
Nakamuro and Shaitung had barely escaped their confrontation with the Dark Oracle. The other Masters had not been so fortunate. The last Nakamuro had seen them they were being overwhelmed by a wall of lava summoned by Tamori. Shortly after their escape from the Oracle, the strange creatures they had come to know as zokujin had discovered them. The zokujin bore a strong connection to the spirits of the earth, and were disturbed by the Dark Oracle’s presence. Just as the Dragon and Phoenix fought one another on the
surface, the zokujin had been fighting the Dark Oracle’s minions in these caves for months even before Nakamuro and Shaitung arrived.
“Shaitung,” Nakamuro said, bowing to the Dragon. “How have you been?”
Shaitung sneered at the Phoenix. “Are you aware of our situation? We are bottled under the earth without the light of the sun, forced to use our magic to summon enough food to sustain ourselves amid these rock-eaters, with an army of elemental terrors barring us from warning the Dragon of my father’s plans. How do you think I have been?”
Nakamuro folded his arms in his sleeves and bowed his head slightly. “I am aware of the danger in which we find ourselves, Shaitung-san,” he replied. “However, I see no need to reason to surrender to anger. After we return to the surface, there will be plenty of time to continue our ridiculous war. In the meantime, we may as well be polite to one another, and learn as much as we can from the zokujin.~’
“You may be content to remain a prisoner, but I am not. While you have been admiring these caves, I have been planning. I think I know what to do about the Dark Oracle.”
“Oh?” Nakamuro asked. “Does this mean that you are at last prepared to trust me?”
“No, I simply require your aid.” Shaitung’s jaw was clenched tight; Nakamuro could tell that asking for his aid had not been easy for her.
“You can trust me to do all I can, Shaitung-san,” he said with a respectful bow. “What is your plan?” “I have heard legends of a spell that allows a master of air magic to transport himself from one place to another,” she said. “Is this true?”
“Indeed,” Nakamuro replied. “A skilled shugenja can entreat the air kami to open a path to a realm called the Way. Through the Way, a shugenja can reach any location with which he is familiar. A talented shugenja can move an entire army through the Way.”
“And do you know this spell?” she asked.
Nakamuro nodded. “For all the good it does us, yes. But the range is limited, and the shugenja must be able to picture his destination clearly. Thanks to our. . . abrupt. . . arrival underground, I have no idea where we are beneath the earth, or where the relative locations of Shiro Tamori or Kyuden Isawa are on the surface. Any attempt to return home via the Way would be extremely dangerous.”
“I don’t want you to take us back home,” Shaitung said. “I want you to take us to the place where we encountered my father.”
“Back to the Oracle’s lair?” Nakamuro was shocked. “Why would he be there? Surely he moved to a new location once we violated his privacy.”
“My father is not fond of change,” Shaitung said grimly. “As you might recall, he was vehemently opposed to the Agasha’s defection to the Phoenix. And it only makes sense. After all, the zokujin have tried to find a way past the Oracle and his elemental terrors, and they have failed. We have tried to find a way, and have also failed,” Shaitung said. “Clearly he has established what he believes to be a center for his territory. I think a new plan is in order. I am done hiding underground.”
“He defeated the entire Council. The zokujin have battled him for months. We could not possibly defeat him.”
“And a lone girl could never defeat the Council of Masters. I would have thought that you had learned it was a mistake to underestimate me, Isawa Nakamuro.”
“You have a point,” Nakamuro conceded. “I am listening.”
* * * * *
Tamori tore through the earth like a great burrowing beast. It was such crude material, not like the delicious, searing touch of fire. He had spent the last few days directing and amplifying the power of his terrors. It would be refreshing to return to his personal chamber and bathe in the sweet liquid of his lava pool. It had been far too long since he had indulged himself.
The Dark Oracle exploded through the floor of his chamber. Already he could sense the heat of his pool, and it brought a smile to his face.
“Hello again, father.”
Tamori turned slowly to face the voice. Two figures stood in the shadows of the chamber, illuminated only by the subtle glow of the lava. “Daughter!” he exclaimed with a sinister grin. “So wonderful to see you again! It seems like you and your. . . friend were only just here.”
“We are not here for conversation, father,” said Shaitung tersely.
“Then whatever are you here for, my dearest?”
“Given leave to do as I please, I would prefer to cleanse the stain upon our family’s honor you have become,” replied the shugenja, hatred evident in her voice.
“And you?” Tamori looked to Nakamuro. “Have you come to make me a better offer? Or perhaps you want revenge. – Yes, I remember you, Phoenix, though you were just a boy then. You were the one who cried like a woman when the Hantei’s soldiers killed your little friend. . . ”
The normally peaceful Master of Air snarled in rage, but was stayed by Shaitung’s hand on his arm. “Nakamuro knows better than to accept any offer from you, father. He is quite learned in the ways of the Oracles. For instance, he assures me that a Dark Oracle cannot use his powers against another being without being invited or attacked.” She glanced sidelong at her Phoenix companion. “And I have come to discover if there is anything of my father left in you.”
The Oracle’s laughter was as genuine as it was unexpected. “Oh, that is magnificent! How very enlightened of you!” Tamori actually wiped away a tear as his laughter tapered off. “Your friend is indeed correct. Fortunately, however, I was invited to provoke hostilities between your two clans.
“By whom?” demanded Shaitung.
Tamori’s grin grew wider. “You mean you don’t know? Truly? Silly girl. Let us just say that it was someone who bears a sizable grudge against the Agasha for their defection,” grinned Tamori. “And thanks to their invitation, I can act against any Phoenix that I choose.” He fixed Nakamuro with a terrible stare. “Or perhaps this one would like to further his knowledge of the Oracles by joining my cause?”
“You are an abomination,” said Shaitung softly.
“I am indeed,” replied Tamori. “And as I recall, you joined the Masters against me.” A great serpent of fire rose up in the pool behind Tamori as he spoke, twining around his body without noticeable effect. “Against your father. Your own flesh and blood. If ever there was an invitation, you have given it to me.” The serpent bared its fiery fangs and hissed a terrible steam cloud toward the two shugenja.
Shaitung gave a great shout. To Nakamuro, it seemed equal parts anguish and blind hatred. Power radiated from her like a forge that suddenly blazed to life, and in that moment Nakamuro understood perfectly how Shaitung could have defeated the Masters. She was a primal, passionate force of nature. And she clearly took after her father.
Tamori and his daughter came together with a force that made it seem as if the Fortunes themselves were entering battle. Shaitung summoned forth great pillars of earth that she crashed into her father over and over again, only to have him melt them away with the incredible heat of his magic. Tamori retained his smile, yet Nakamuro could sense that even he was staggered by the ferocity of Shaitung’s relentless assault.
Nakamuro struggled to stay on his feet as the chamber rumbled from the battle. The walls crumbled and rolled dangerously, and Nakamuro found himself thrown to the ground, face to face with a scorched skeleton in a charred kimono he recognized. “Riake,” he whispered. He felt the beginnings of panic blossom in his chest, spreading through his limbs like wildfire. Leaping to his feet, he glanced around desperately.
There. On the northern wall. The tremors had opened a tunnel that had previously been blocked. Was that sunlight? Was it possible that this tunnel led all the way to the surface? Dare he hope that escape might be possible? He clenched his jaw as he glanced back to the battle.
“Nakamuro!” shouted Shaitung. “Help me destroy this filth! ”
To be continued. . .