By Ken Carpenter
Lit only by the small traveling lantern, the shadowed hallway went on forever, taunting. Isawa Kaede knew that it was her haste which created the illusion of an endless corridor, but the impression did not change.
Fear threatened to shatter her self-mastery – urged her to runheadlong down the passage. She was acutely aware, however, that such abandonment of discipline would prevent the use of her arts. Still, concern for her brother, Tadaka, nearly overwhelmed her. Fists clenching involuntarily, she continued the journey at a controlled but quick pace.
Only the quiet patting of her reed sandals on the centuries-old stone and the soft rustling of her silk kimono disturbed the oppressive silence of the ancient, abandoned castle.
After what seemed an eternity she stood before a heavy metal-bound door. Both upon and about the door were powerful sigils and wards. The aggressive pace she had kept left her with a blush of exertion. Nonetheless, blood drained from her face as she deciphered the wards, leaving her deathly pale.
“So it is all true.” Although Kaede had known the truth before she arrived, realization came suddenly. She took an involuntary step back away from the door and what might lay behind it.
Only a few weeks ago, Kaede had traveled to Crane lands to confer with Shiba Tsukune. Tsukune was the leader of the Phoenix forces there, small though they were. It had seemed an urgent matter at the time, but paled in comparison to what had transpired in her absence.
Her return trip had been difficult both because of the weather — monsoon season had arrived – and because she sensed something was wrong at home. A few days ago, as she neared her home, Kaede was met by a messenger from Shiba Katsuda, a close friend of Tadaka.
The message stated that Tadaka had delved deeply into the dark paths of Shadow lore, that he had tempted the secrets of the Black Scrolls in an attempt to learn their power and discover a way to defeat the forces of the Shadowlands. He had called it “a necessary evil”. But he had been changed. His drive had turned to obsession; his quest, his hatred of the Shadows, had absorbed him. Did her brother yet remain… trapped within his passion?
Upon arriving home Kaede learned that Tadaka and Asako Yasu had left for the Ruins of Yanubei. Yanubei had been an early stronghold of the Isawa, destroyed by Shadowlands creatures before the Seven Thunders quelled Fu Leng’s hordes. It had been abandoned for centuries.
No one knew their purpose for traveling to the ruins in such weather, but all knew their resolve. There was a tangible aura of fear throughout the ancient home of the Phoenix. Fear and hopelessness.
Kaede rubbed her tired eyes, discovering excess moisture. Would the Phoenix clan survive this struggle? How many great shugenja would become their own enemy in the study of the Shadowlands’ evil? Would they not learn before they were lost? How anxiously the students of Shinsei fed their souls to the darkness!
Her resolve hardened as she made the necessary incantations to pass safely beyond Tadaka’s wards. The door swung open and she began to climb the narrow, stone stairs beyond, the door closing as she passed.
The air in the stairwell was cold and damp, but fresh. Kaede shuddered, but not from the chill air. Somewhere, at the top of the tower, her brother stood in the vortex of a storm — rain and winds whipping at him from without, darkness and corruption ripping at him from within. Could he survive such a beating?
Kaede finally reached the top of the stairs and stepped out of the stairwell’s protection onto the battlements of what was once called Caster‘s Tower. It had been a place of powerful incantations and the kami were said to be strengthened there.
Across the battlement, outlined by a blinding flash of lightning, Kaede saw Tadaka feverishly maintaining an incantation. Asako Yasu, looking older and weaker than she had ever seen him, stood near Tadaka. Yasu’s arms wove his support, but both his art and his body seemed near collapse from the exertion of the ritual magic.
Kaede moved toward them, finally noticing, as she did, that they were not alone. Thrashing in the air above and beyond Tadaka, an ominous shape writhed and struggled, pitting its will against the combined art and strength of Tadaka and Yasu. It was an abomination, the sight of which tore at Kaede’s will.
Its form was sleek and angular with elongated limbs and long sharpened claws. In another flash of lightning she could see that its flesh had the mottled colors of decay and rot. Its bulbous eyes, one larger than the other, radiated a force that Kaede didn’t understand — it ate at her resolve.
Her body recoiled and bile rose to her mouth. She rode a sea of panic. Fear for her brother and Yasu were replaced entirely by terror- mindless, formless, without purpose. Suddenly, the wave crashed and withdrew, then… peace.
Her discipline had risen to her aid, crushing that which contested her self-mastery. Her eyes saw, not as a human’s eyes but as the Mistress of the Void. Kaede extended her will. Calling upon her knowledge of Air, and the storm was quelled. She crossed the battlement to join Yasu and Tadaka.
Her senses reached out to them and she felt their purpose, though it was not her own. Tadaka would deal with the shadows to learn their secrets — it was a well traveled path, but all steps led one way. Yasu, while not so sure of purpose as Tadaka, could not allow his former student to climb into the dragon’s maw alone. She sensed his exhaustion. “Oh. Yasu… sensei. You are almost destroyed.”
Kaede recoiled from what they had begun, their purpose. Reaching into the shadows they had drawn forth a beast – only evil could come of it. Still, she could not stop what they had begun without great risk to all three of them. To loose such a beast could mean death. Instead, she studied Tadaka’s methods, the ebb and flow of his power, the conflict of his will… then added her own.
The struggle was mighty, but brief. Kaede’s will was fresh, and the struggle had drained the captive Oni. The beast was broken. Yasu collapsed, but his hoarse breathing told Kaede that he had not perished.
Tadaka opened his eyes, rimmed in red and dull from exertion. They turned, cold and unblinking, toward Kaede, and she almost shivered at the stranger she saw within. Then the light of recognition warmed the eyes and they both smiled weakly.
In the few moments that Kaede had been involved in the struggle of wills, she realized what great power Tadaka must wield to have held the Oni at bay for so long. The Oni…
Turning almost in unison, their attention went to the form hovering above the battlements. It too appeared weak from the struggle. Savage eyes looked down upon the Masters of Earth and Void. Then, in a voice like the shattering of glass, it spoke.
“Who drew me here?”
Tadaka was reborn, fire stirred deep within his eyes. “We summon you that we may learn your nature, so that we may defeat your kind! We are Elemental Masters of clan Phoenix.”
“You seek to bind me? To keep me here? That is a grand purpose, ‘Elemental Masters of clan Phoenix?”
Something in the way the creature spoke, a confidence bordering on smugness, made Kaede wary. She stepped back a pace and tried to pull Tadaka away as well, but her brother brushed her hand away absently.
“If you would bind me, I must know the name of my Master and must have a name or my own. Surely you can give me a name?!”
“I am Tadaka!” replied the Master of Earth. His void was strong and confident, but bore the resignation of a doomed man – a man who walked a path not of his choosing, but of necessity.
Understanding came to Kaede, but too late.
Striking with a speed akin to the lightning which had so recently ruled the sky, the beast’s teeth sank into Tadaka’s right shoulder and drew away blood, flesh and bone. Tadaka screamed – a savage combination of fury, pain and despair. Tears rolled down Kaede’s face, hidden within the dampness of the rain.
As Tadaka collapsed, the beast threw back its head, tossing his flesh to the back of its gullet, and swallowed loudly. Kaede rushed to her brother’s side.
The Oni’s dangerous, predatorial eyes returned to the prostrate form of the Master of Earth. Then it spoke once more…
“I, also… am Tadaka!”