The chamber of the Elemental Masters was once a place of learning and of governance, focal point around which the Phoenix Clan revolved. Throughout history many terrible conflicts worsened in the presence of those who sat around the great stone table, but it was nevertheless, a place of peace and introspection.
Isawa Hochiu sat at the head of the great table, his expression grim. Only two others joined him. To his left, a younger man with flawless features but an equally disturbed expression sat in pensive silence. Hochiu had never seen the man so preoccupied, and it weighed heavily upon him, reinforcing his own fears and concerns. To his right, an older woman reclined wearily in her stone seat. Hochiu and she had been through much together in their distinguished careers, but never had he seen her so exhausted, so weary. The vibrant energy that always filled her soul was absent, and Hochiu wondered if her hatred of Isawa Nakamuro, now waning, had been the only thing driving her all these years.
The two empty seats tortured Hochiu. In other circumstances, Nakamuro’s absence might be inconsequential. Hochiu considered him a softhearted weakling. The Master of Fire’s disdain for the Master of Air was not as intense as Taeruko’s, but he had little use for the man in the best of circumstances. Still, these were hardly the best circumstances, and Hochiu was forced to admit, if only to himself, that Nakamuro’s power and wisdom would be missed.
The other seat once belonged to Isawa Riake. Her death… Hochiu still had difficulty thinking of it. It had not been until the moment of her sacrifice that he realized he loved her. Why had he not seen it? Was he so blind to the world around him?
Hochiu shook his head angrily. That line of thought was useless. “This Council cannot remain broken,” he began. “The Elemental Masters are the guiding hand of the Phoenix. To remain as we are, weakened and fearful… it is a shame I will not endure.”
Shiba Ningen stirred in his seat. “The guiding hand, Hochiu? Have you seen how they flock to Aikune’s banner? Not just the Shiba, but many among the other families as well, including the Isawa.” He shook his head in confusion. “I cannot see the future as it regards to the Last Wish. It may yet bring great good or great evil. I do not know what will become of the Phoenix.”
“I do not need the Void to see the future,” growled Taeruko. “I will tell you what the future holds: the upstart Aikune will pay for his transgression and the Masters will once again be the supreme power in the Phoenix Clan. There is no alternative.”
All three Masters suddenly clutched their heads. Ningen actually gasped in pain. There was a terrible rending of the elements, and a portal opened in the middle of the room. From it stepped a young man in brilliant armor, a blazing katana sheathed at his side. So great was the blade’s radiance that it leaked out from the saya and spilled into the room.
“An upstart, you say?” the man said. “So strong a word.”
“Shiba Aikune,” Hochiu said through clenched teeth. “You know that only the Masters are permitted within this chamber. Leave. Immediately.”
“I seem to recall my mother’s presence here,” Aikune said, his gaze straying across the great marble table. “I would think your respect for her would have you reconsider.” He locked eyes with the Master of Fire. “Or would you disrespect her memory?” There was a dangerous gleam to his eyes that Hochiu did not care for.
“I will not disrespect her memory, no,” Hochiu said, cutting off Taeruko before she made a comment they would all regret. “The Fortunes are not for mortal beings to judge, but be sure you understand this, Shiba Aikune: I respect the power you wield, but I do not fear you.”
Aikune’s hand petted his saya absently. “I do not require you to fear me, Council of Masters,” he said. “I only require you to obey.”
Taeruko growled and might have risen from her seat had not Ningen waved her back. The Master of Void looked at Aikune without malice or deceit. “What is it you wish, Aikune?”
Aikune looked to each of them. “I come simply to tell you that I no longer bear ill will toward the Council,” he said finally. “I understand now how I was beneath your notice before I became what I am now. Now I am your equal. For the good of our clan, I am prepared to show respect so long as I am shown it in return.”
Taeruko laughed. “You expect us to believe that you bear me no ill will after the way I have treated you?”
Aikune could not meet Taeruko’s gaze, perhaps remembering her daughter whom he had loved, and watched die. “I will not lie, Taeruko. I still resent your arrogance, but I do not intend to unseat you. I may desire your blood for the way you maligned and belittled my family-” A slow scowl spread across Hochiu’s features. “-but I will not use the Wish in anger. To do so would endanger the entire clan.”
“Well said,” said Hochiu. “Now leave this place. We must determine a new Master of Water, and by tradition such words are not for outsiders. Not even you.” There was a note of respect in the Master of Fire’s voice.
“As you wish,” Aikune said, the portal reopening behind him. “But remember my words, Hochiu. I no longer wish to be your enemy. Do not make me one.” He stepped through the portal and vanished.
None of the Masters spoke for several long moments. The silence was at last broken when Hochiu leaned forward and spread his hands on the table.
“The Council must be rebuilt, and soon. Who among our clan is suitable?”
The discussion lasted long into the night.
Far to the south, the halls of Kyuden Agasha remained soundless. Those who dwelt within observed complete silence during daimyo Agasha Hamanari’s meditations. The hush, augmented by the spells quieting his chambers, helped Hamanari reach the state of utter peace conducive to visions.
Only this morning, Hamanari had felt such a sensation. He had fasted for almost a full day, and now settled into a comfortable routine of deep meditation. He cast his mind into the streams of time only accessible to a true seer. It was not magic as the shugenja of the Empire understood it. No, this was completely different, a gift of harmony with the universe that only a handful in each generation possessed. Most never learned to master it. Hamanari considered such a waste of one’s natural blessings sinful.
The vision came suddenly, with such force that the aging Agasha cried out. A great bird of fire, white-hot with power, rose up from the mountains and seared the plains and forests of the Phoenix. It then flew forth and smote the mountains to the west, ignoring the insect-sized dragons that rose up against it. The creature destroyed everything in its path, leaving the Empire a blackened wasteland. At first it seemed that nothing remained, but deep in the ash Hamanari could sense the elements of new life, the seeds of greatness.
Hamanari lurched from his mat, sprawling across the floor as he awoke from the vision. He gasped and sputtered, knocking over his table in his haste to reach a cup of water to quench his unnatural thirst. He forced himself to take short sips rather than pour the entire cup down his throat.
As the water calmed him, Hamanari thought of the horror he just witnessed. Could such a vision possibly relate to the Wish Aikune carried? Was it good or ill? If ill, was the fate unavoidable? Should the Agasha stand against Aikune to avoid such fate, or would doing so bring about the vision he wished to avoid?
Shaken by the intensity of his vision, Hamanari found no answers, only fear.
Agasha Hamanari – The daimyo of the Agasha family and a gifted seer. Hamanari is one of the eldest Agasha and once served the Dragon Clan.
Asako Bairei – A scholar of the Isawa family and a master of forgotten lore. Bairei knows magical secrets that most shugenja among the Phoenix have long forgotten.
Doji Akiko – The daughter of Isawa, Akiko returned to the Empire and married Doji Kurohito, Champion of the Crane Clan.
Isawa Hochiu – The Master of Fire and the leader of the Council of Elemental Masters. Hochiu was instrumental in the Empire’s victory over the Lying Darkness at Oblivion’s Gate.
Isawa Maasaki – An impetuous shugenja who assisted in the recovery of one of the Twelve Black Scrolls.
Isawa Nakamuro – The Master of Air, currently residing in the Dragon lands as a hostage of the Tamori family.
Isawa Riake – The Master of Water who recently perished during a conflict with Agasha Tamori, the Dark Oracle of Fire.
Isawa Taeruko – The Master of Earth. Taeruko’s daughter was loved equally by Shiba Aikune and Isawa Nakamuro, but was killed during the War of Spirits. She blames Nakamuro and Aikune for her daughter’s death.
Isawa Yoriko – A young prodigy of the Isawa gifted in water magic, but considered unstable by those close to her.
Shiba Aikune – Son of former Phoenix Champion Shiba Tsukune and wielder of a powerful intelligent magical artifact named Isawa’s Last Wish. He commands the armies of the Phoenix and resents the Isawa for their dismissal of him in previous years.
Shiba Ningen – The Master of Void, and the only member of the Shiba family to sit among the Elemental Masters in centuries.