by Rich Wulf
Beyond the realms of mortal understanding, there is a place known only as the Dragonlands. Those who claim to know the workings of the Spirit Realms claim that it is a part of the Celestial Heavens, but the creatures that dwell there know better. The Dragonlands exist only in the eyes of true dragons, elemental creatures that represent the inherent balance in the universe. The Dragonlands are much like the Empire, save that they are perfect in every way. Every stream flows pure and clear. Every tree stands tall and strong. Every sunrise, every sunset, is perfect. All is in balance, as the dragons would have it.
The creature that now sat on a perfect stone beside a perfect lake in a perfect meadow was hardly in balance at all. She was also not a dragon, except perhaps in the loosest definition of the word. She was a human woman, or she had been before the Dragon of the Void shared its power with her many years ago. Now she was something more than human, though she seldom thought of herself as such.
Toturi Kaede, Oracle of the Void, stared into the sparkling lake. With the heightened senses of a dragon she could see the lands of Rokugan in the water’s depths. She watched as her children turned against one another. She watched as Daigotsu’s legions marched upon Otosan Uchi. She watched as the Oracle of Thunder fell to corruption. She watched as Fu Leng escaped his bonds and attacked the gates of heaven. For many months she sat without moving, watching events in the Empire she loved so well. She wiped a tear from her face and turned away.
“This is my fault,” she said to no one in particular. “All due to my arrogance.”
“Perhaps,” the nothingness replied. Stars sparkled in midair as the form of an inky black dragon formed around the voice. The Dragon of the Void watched its mortal agent patiently.
“Master.” Kaede whispered, a note of hope in her voice for the first time in ages. “You are alive!”
The Dragon of the Void laughed, a strange, sibilant sound. “I was never your master, Kaede,” it said, “It is good to see you again.”
“Where have you been?” she asked.
“A tale for another time,” it replied. ‘”Why have you come to the Dragonlands, Kaede? Are you not needed in Rokugan?”
“I would do more harm than good there now,” she said.
“And why is that?” Void asked.
Kaede scowled bitterly. “You know, my lord,” she said. “You are a dragon. Your wisdom is limitless. your sight unclouded. Surely you know how all of this came to be.”
“Then speak of it not for my sake but for yours,” the dragon said, “and by speaking of it, let healing begin. Start from the beginning. Start with who you are. Speak as if I know nothing.”
Kaede took a deep breath and organized her thoughts. “I am Toturi Kaede, once Isawa Kaede, Oracle of the Void,” she said in a clear voice, surprised once again at how distant her memories of the time before she became Oracle seemed now. “Like all Oracles of Light, I serve an Elemental Dragon. I am bound to guide, but never to interfere unasked.”
“And yet you have interfered before,” the dragon said. “You have determined the course of an Empire.”
“Only when required,” she said. “I took the throne during the War Against the Darkness to guide Toturi from oblivion. I took it again after his death…” She trailed off, not willing to speak further on the subject.
“Tell me of the Dark Oracles,” the dragon said, changing the subject. The serpentine creature wrapped itself around a nearby tree, poking its head between the branches.
Kaede was silent for a long time, then began with a deep sigh. “Each Oracle has always had its opposite number,” she said solemnly. “A Dark Oracle fueled by Jigoku’s corruption as surely as the Oracles of Light are sponsored by the true dragons. Each Oracle has a Dark Oracle except Thunder, who has always been the sponsor of heroes, and Void, who has always stood in the center.”
The Dragon of the Void looked at Kaede intently. “The Void was meant to stand as a balance between the elements,” it replied. “Neither good nor evil, neither pure nor corrupted.”
“I changed that,” Kaede whispered.
“Change is the nature of the universe.” the dragon said.
“Not like this,” she said. “When I took the Steel Throne upon my husbands death, I intended to steer Rokugan back to its days of glory. The Oracle of the Void aligned herself with the forces of purity and honor. I disrupted the harmony of Void. Jigoku saw its chance to create a Dark Oracle of the Void and seized it.” Kaede looked back into the perfect lakes still surface. “l failed you, master.”
“No.” the dragon said, swimming lazily through the air. “You succeeded. Things would have been much worse had you remained in Rokugan. You saw that. Not all would have been so wise.”
Kaede looked up at the dragon in disbelief. “Worse?” she said in a shocked voice. “Have you not seen what I have wrought.” Otosan Uchi lies in ruins. My children make war with one another over their father’s throne. Fu Leng has escaped into heaven. What could be worse?”
The dragon looked at her quickly, and did not answer. Its eyes were cold and hard.
Kaede sobbed quietly “My brother died to stop the Dark Kami,” she said in a choked voice, “and now his sacrifice is for nothing. How can you count this as success?”
“You forget, Kaede, though I am fond of mortals my goal was always balance,” the dragon said, swirling through the air to pass over her shoulder. It rested its weightless chin on her hand. “The universe had grown stagnant. The time had come for change, and for better or worse you and your children have brought that change.”
“At what cost?” Kaede asked.
“The cost does not matter,” the dragon said. “l have spoken to Toryu, and I believe that both of you have done a remarkable job, given the circumstances.”
Kaede felt her blood grow cold. She could not speak for a long time, even time as measured in the Dragonlands. “The Dark Oracle of Void,” she said. “You have spoken to him?”
The dragon nodded and twisted back once more, flowing behind its Oracle. “Why should I not?” it asked. He was prepared to bear the burden you created. Where once one Oracle of the Void maintained the balance now there are two. He is no less my child than you are, Kaede-chan, albeit a wicked child. He is prepared to do his duty, sinister as it may be. Tonbo Toryu knows his purpose in the universe.”
“Why?” she asked, shaking her head slowly. “Why did Toryu become the Dark Oracle? He was the Oracle of Thunder! Now who will protect the Empires heroes?”
“Heroes have a way of protecting themselves, and they are not without aid,” the dragon said enigmatically. For the time being, it serves our purposes for the Oracle of Thunder’s place to stand empty. The balance of power swings toward Jigoku. The Realm of Evil grows in power. Soon all will be as it should have been.” The Dragon of the Void swirled in spirals around Kaede, its long body leaving trails of sparkling black motes on the wind. “All is in readiness. This could not have come to pass without you, Kaede, or without your impetuous son.”
Kaede’s eyes narrowed. She rose slowly from her seat, her depthless black eyes fixing on the dragon’s. “Sezaru?” she asked, and now worry tinged her voice. “What part does my son play in this?”
The dragon grinned, but did not answer directly. “The Wolf worries for you,” it said. “He has visited your counterparts, the other Oracles. He seeks you, Kaede. He wants only two things – vengeance for his father’s murder and knowledge that his mother is safe. What a loving son. It was his curiosity that saved me. What worth is there in life, I ask you, without family.”
“You have changed,” Kaede said, watching the dragon suspiciously “You are not as you were.”
“I have been unwell this is true,” the dragon said, swimming in playful loops in midair. “Unlike my brethren, I am not accustomed to the existence of a Dark Oracle that bears my name. But if I have changed, then you have changed me. We are one, are we not?”
Kaede ignored the dragon’s ravings, looking back at the lake. She saw the Shogun’s armies marching on Ryoko Owari, thirsty for Naseru’s blood. She saw Sezaru’s anger as Tsudao’s legions entered his territory, saw the misunderstanding grow between a brother and sister who once were close. She saw the Dark Lord in his temple, calmly preparing his defenses. She looked back at the hovering dragon. Her face was confident and determined, as it had once been long ago. No more tears stained her cheeks. “If this is what you call balance, then to Jigoku with balance,” she said. “I want to help my children.”
“You know what is best,” the dragon said in a detached voice. “The Empress is infallible, is she not?”
Kaede studied the dragon cautiously. “Empress?” she asked. “What are you saying?”
“You assumed the throne of Rokugan,” the dragon said slowly, as if explaining a complex matter to a small child. “You neither died, nor abdicated the throne. The Empress holds her office for life, thus you are still the ruler of Rokugan. The Four Winds may grant themselves whatever titles they wish, but the Celestial Heavens recognize only one Emperor.”
“Me,” Kaede replied.
“So return to Rokugan if you desire,” the dragon said. “Take the throne. Assert your will upon the people. Bring them peace. Ally the Great Clans against Daigotsu. Bring about the golden age you once desired.”
Kaede sat down on the stone as she realized the weight of what she was considering.
“And why should you not?” the dragon continued, fluttering by her side again. “The Clans love you. They will obey you where they will not obey one Wind or another. You are an Oracle. The wisdom of the eternal dragons is your guide. Your power is such that even Daigotsu would not challenge you. You could rule Rokugan forever. Ageless, immortal, invincible…”
“And with each year passing I would grow more unlike them, unable to understand my people,” she said in a low voice. “I would bring them to ruin.”
“And through your good intentions a greater evil would be created,” the dragon answered. “Now you know why Oracles are forbidden from acting as anything more than guides.”
“I do not understand,” Kaede said. “When I married Toturi, none of this happened. I was not punished. There was no imbalance.”
“Because the force you fought – the Lying Darkness – was not evil,” the dragon said. “The Lying Darkness desired the destruction of all, and even Jigoku does not truly wish for that, even if some of its more misguided minions stood against you at Oblivion’s Gate.”
“I should have stood aside,” Kaede said as the truth of the dragon’s words settled upon her. “I should have denied the throne when Toturi offered. I should have given it to…”
“To who?” the dragon asked curiously. “To whom would you have passed the mantle of leadership?”
Kaede could not answer.
“You know the truth,” the dragon said. “You have always known, as Toturi has always known, but you fear to speak it.”
“Power changes whoever wields it,” Kaede said. “It changed Toturi, and it changed me. Toturi saw the change in himself, the loss of his old idealism, the numbing of the courage that once defined him. He did not wish to see that happen. Not… Not to…” Kaede could not say the name. She closed her eyes, banishing the memory.
“Change is the nature of the universe,” the dragon replied. “Someone must rule.”
“I know,” Kaede said. “I am prepared to do what must be done.”
The Dragon of the Void flicked its tail across the surface of the lake and looked back at its Oracle. Its eyes were bright and inquisitive, “So are you saying that you can make that choice at last? That you can name the heir to the throne?”
“I can,” she asked, opening her eyes again.
The dragon nodded. “You know the cost?” it asked. “No mortal has asked you to interfere in such a manner.”
“The price will be my life,” Kaede said. “My life has been long and, for the most part, happy. That is not my regret. I fear for balance. The last time I interfered, I caused Toryu to be corrupted. What will happen this time?”
The dragon chuckled. “Did you not curse the balance only moments ago? How fickle you humans are, and how amusing.”
“Do not toy with me, dragon,” she said.
“Think, Kaede, it is what you do best,” the Dragon of the Void said in a more serious tone. “There is no Oracle of Thunder. Fu Leng ravages the heavens. Daigotsu has defeated the Four Winds again and again. Is it not strange to you that I take such joy in these defeats? In the face of such imbalance, such chaos, what will it matter if you interfere one more time? What difference will it make?”
“Only my life,” she said.
“Yes,” the dragon said. “Only your life.” Kaede sensed a deep sadness in the dragon, the first true emotion she had sensed since she first met the creature on the Day of Thunder so many years ago. “If you choose not to do this, I will understand. There will always be a place for you in the Dragonlands.”
“No,” Kaede said, standing again. “I cannot hide from my responsibility I must return to Rokugan.”
“So be it,” the Dragon of the Void replied. In an instant, the majestic creature had vanished, on the breeze.
With a single step, the Oracle of the Void left the Dragonlands, and returned to the Empire…