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Masters of Earth
By Shawn Carman and Rich Wulf

The Phoenix mountains, present day

A single man knelt in total silence. He did not move or speak. His long white beard spilled out across his ample stomach, onto his knees and upon the ground. His eyes were closed, his thoughts focused. He could sense the presence of the others around him, powerful and respected, strong in the elements. He could feel them studying him, weighing his worth.

" Why should we do this thing?" a voice demanded. " Why should we accept that which you ask? Why are you worthy?"

"Not I," the man answered. "I do not ask for myself. The Master of Earth has fallen."

"What does that have to do with you? Why should we care?"

The old man smiled.

Kyuden Isawa, year 1128

Even weeks after the terrible tragedy that had followed Isawa Tsuke's massacre, there was a thin haze that covered the sky all around the Isawa lands. The land seemed somehow empty, with none of the normal clamor of shugenja studying, meditating, or practicing in the tranquil lands surrounding the palace. Tsuke had ensured most would never do so again.

Isawa Taeruko surveyed the seared landscape with dismay, her fine features beginning to show the signs of wrinkles from constant worry. To Isawa Sachi, the notion of such beauty marred needlessly was unacceptable. "What troubles you, Taeruko?" he asked with a smile. "I cannot bear to see you so distressed."

The young woman glanced at him almost absently, his comments obviously doing nothing to dispel her dark mood. "Look at this," she said quietly. "Look at the devastation. How can even the Phoenix rise from these ashes? I think upon the great legends of our ancestors, and wonder if we will ever again match their glory. This is the end of the Phoenix Clan's story."

"Stories grow in the telling," Sachi offered. "Forgive me for my presumption, Taeruko-chan. We both know I was not born a Phoenix, but joined the Isawa family at Master Kuro's request, yet in my time here I have learned much of our clan's history. While we must respect the past, we must not be overwhelmed by it. Everyone is human, even great Isawa himself. Nothing is as grand as it seems through the veil of history."

"And what tale will we tell of this?" she demanded, gesturing to a blackened hillock where a grove of ancient trees had once stood. "Will your grandchildren see Isawa Tsuke's accomplishments as grand?'"

Sachi glanced down at her words, his mood considerably deflated. "No," he said. "They will hear stories of a great man who fell to darkness. They will heed the warnings of his example, and learn to avoid the same fate. They will hear of heroes who struggled against and overcame the madman. Your cousin's tale, a tale of Thunder."

Taeruko shook her head again. "It seems easy enough to spin such pretty words," she said sadly. "You have always had a talent for that. You could have been a storyteller." She smiled fondly at him.

"Ah, but storytellers must travel so that experience can season their art, and I find that I cannot part from my new home," Sachi smiled back at her. "How could I leave when so many wonders bind me here?"

The young woman's smile faded, if only for a moment. "I am betrothed to another, Sachi," she said quietly. "You know that."

"I do," he affirmed. "It is a grand match. Hikaru is a good man, and a good friend. Your marriage will bring much honor to both your houses."

Taeruko began to say something else, then seemed to think better of it. She turned back to vista before them, gazing out upon the burnt forests with a thoughtful expression. "Have you spoken to them recently?" she finally asked.

Sachi frowned. "Spoken to whom?"

"The kami," she said flatly. "Have you spoken with them lately?"

"Of course." He scratched his chin absently. "I speak with them daily."

"But have you truly listened?" She shook her head sadly. "They do not even seem to notice."

"Notice what?" he said, confused by the turn of conversation.

She pointed to the mountain in the distance. "I have spoken to the kami that reside within that mountain, told them of Isawa Tsuke's downfall. They were unaware anything unusual had happened. I explained that many of us had died. They did not seem to care, or even find it unusual, though some of the spirits did ask me when Tadaka would return. When I told him he was dead, they did not seem to accept that as an answer."

Sachi chuckled. "Do you find it surprising the mountains do not care?" he asked. "It is the way of earth to be stolid, resolute, independent. The fact that they knew of Tadaka at all is, I think, a gesture of the greatest respect."

"Perhaps," Taeruko said, though she sounded unconvinced. "Yet they did not mourn for him. They only seemed surprised that the Master of Earth could be defeated. But they moved on quickly enough. I think they may have forgotten by the time we were finished talking, or at least were not greatly concerned."

"Why should they be?" Sachi asked. "The kami do not die. To them, Tadaka's passing is not the end, merely a change. They will see him again one day."

Taeruko said nothing, but sat quietly and ran her fingers through her hair. Sachi watched her patiently. Once again he could not help but think that Kuro could not have chosen a finer Master of Earth. Like the mountain she was confident in her strength, powerful and beautiful yet unaware of her power& and like the mountain, fated to be distant and alone.

"Will the spirits know when we die?" Taeruko asked. "Will they care? Will our lives make any difference whatsoever in the end?"

"Yes," Sachi said emphatically.

"How can you be sure?"

"Because I remember," he said. "I remember my ancestors, my friends, my family. I remember those who have gone before, and I try to live every day in their honor. The kami are not like us. They are not mortal; they measure time in centuries. The acts of mere days do not concern them, but like us they recall those who are worthy. My grandfather was a good man, the most brilliant shugenja of the Usagi family. I do not doubt that if my grandfather returned to us today, the water kami would recognize him and revere him, just as I would."

Taeruko listened and nodded. "Is that enough? Will we be worthy?"

"I think so," Sachi nodded. "We may not have all that we wish from this life, but we leave a legacy that will stand forever." He gestured to Kyuden Isawa in the distance. "Now, more than ever, is our time to build a new legend. I, for one, plan to live a life that will be remembered. I will not let Tsuke's madness bring the grand tale of the Phoenix to an end."

Taeruko laughed, a rare, bright sound. "You are far too young to be so wise, Sachi-san," she said with a laugh.

He grinned. "Yes, well, I thought it best to get an early start."

The northern Isawa provinces, year 1145

"Hikaru!" Sachi shouted, running through the thick smoke. "Hikaru! Where are you?"

"Sachi," a weak cry came through the haze. "Here!"

Sachi rushed to a small shrine near the village's center, his sword in hand. The shrine was one of the few buildings not yet in flames. Perhaps the raiders had some sense of reverence after all. There, next to the pillar, a crumpled form was propped against a column. A spear was buried in the man's stomach, pinning him to the earth, but he yet lived.

"Hikaru!" Sachi cried, dropping beside the fallen man. He cast a simple spell, dispelling the pain of the man's horrible wound so that he could speak. "How badly are you hurt?"

Isawa Hikaru coughed and offered a weak smile. "The Yobanjin did their job well enough, Sachi-san. I prayed that I might live to tell another what I have seen. The Yobanjin march south, seven tribes allied under a single banner& we slowed their progress but in the end we had no chance. I thank Bishamon that he granted me the strength to see you one last time, my friend."

"No!" Sachi insisted, dropping his sword and digging through his scroll pouch. "You mustn't talk like that! I can heal you! You will live!"

"No," Hikaru insisted, seizing Sachi's wrist. "No more magic. Your spells cannot help me now. Save your power for the Yobanjin. If their progress is not checked, they will destroy the fields. The Phoenix will starve. You must stop them."

"I can do both!" Sachi insisted. "I have power enough save you and the harvest!"

"Is my life worth so much?" Hikaru snarled, his breath now coming in shallow gasps. "Look at me, Sachi! Would you risk the lives of so many for the chance you might save me?"

"Please," Sachi said quietly. "If not for me, then for Taeruko."

"Taeruko would make the same choice," Hikaru said with a wet, hacking cough.

Sachi bowed his head. He reached out and grasped Hikaru's bloody hand in his own, offering his dying friend at least some sense of comfort.

"I know that you love her, Sachi," he said.

Sachi did not look up, though his face burned red in shame.

"I am not angry, Sachi," Hikaru said. "I have always known. You have loved her longer than I have even known her, but you put those feelings aside for the clan. You have ever been a loyal friend. In the end, when the Yobanjin outnumbered us, I considered fleeing. I asked myself, what would Sachi do? That is how I found the courage to fight."

Sachi said nothing. A tear ran down his weathered face, into his black beard.

"Tell Taeruko that I died well," Hikaru said.

"How can I bring her such terrible news?" Sachi asked in a thick voice. "It would destroy me to give her such pain."

"Better that a stranger should tell her?" Hikaru asked. "If you must bring a tale of tragedy, then temper it with victory, my friend."

"I will," Sachi said, looking into his friend's eyes a last time. "I promise."

"My life for the Phoenix," Isawa Hikaru whispered.

And then he was gone.

Sachi sat for a long moment, his head swimming. Hikaru had been his closest friend for over a decade. There was no meaning to his death, no purpose. It was mindless, senseless violence, exactly the sort of thing he had been taught to despise. Exactly the sort of thing he had taught others to despise.

Isawa Sachi stood up, ignoring the smoke that stung his eyes and nose. He had spent his entire life struggling against violence. Now he saw that he had been a fool. Violence could not be prevented with words or intentions, or even with magic. Even when every possible variable had been taken into account, chaos would descend from the mountains and lay waste to whatever paradise one built for oneself. It was unstoppable, inevitable. As inevitable as the earth itself.

If chaos could not be prevented, then it would be destroyed.

Sachi would protect peace with violence. He would be the lesser evil, the necessary terror that existed to shield those he loved. And he would begin his reign now.

Sachi threw his hands into the air. A savage bellow echoed from his thick chest, rolling out across the mountains. In response to his cry, the loose soil all around the village erupted upward and showered down everywhere, scouring the burning village at his command. The fires were smothered with earth, coating everything in an inch-thick layer of soil and rocks. The surviving villagers cried out, terrified by the flying stones, but none were injured. The fires were extinguished. The village, or what remained of it, was safe now.

A pillar of earth rose beneath Sachi. He perched atop it with perfect balance, his face a mask of pain and anger. "Magistrates will be here soon," he said. His voice echoed across the entire village. "Remain calm. Help will be here very shortly." The pillar shook and began to move across the ground like a boat on the sea.

"Wait!" a voice called out. Sachi looked down to see the village hetman. "What if the Yobanjin return, my lord? We cannot stand against them! What if they return?"

"They will not return," Sachi said, his voice a low growl. "I will see to that." The pillar rolled forward. Sachi left his friend behind, and perhaps something of himself as well.

None in the village saw Sachi's meeting with the Yobanjin, though they all knew without a doubt when the acolyte of earth had found them. Even in the village, they could feel the earth shake. As evening fell, one farmer happened to be looking in the direction Sachi had gone. He saw one of the low mountains on the horizon fall, crumbling into dust as it rolled over the barbarian armies.

Then all was still once more.

Near Kyuden Isawa, two days later

The color drained from Taeruko's face. "What are you saying?" she said, her voice little more than a hushed whisper. "What are you telling me?"

Sachi struggled to keep his composure. "I did all that I could," he said. His voice quavered as he spoke. "I could not reach him in time. I could not save him. Hikaru is dead, Taeruko. I& I am sorry."

The Master of Earth stood in her parlor and stared blankly at Sachi. She stared at him as if he had spoken to her in some ancient, forgotten language. The only sign of comprehension was the dawning horror in her eyes and the absence of color from her face. Tears filled her eyes, but they did not fall. For a moment, he believed she would weather this hardship like the mountains she commanded, but then her legs buckled and she collapsed in the floor.

Sachi took a step forward, his first instinct to help her, but he held himself back. It would not be proper, and it could hurt her reputation if others knew. As much as he wanted to help her, to hold her, he would not shame her to appease his own selfish needs.

A young girl and boy appeared in the doorway, laughing. Sachi recognized them as Taeruko's daughter, Yaruko, and her betrothed, Shiba Aikune. Sachi turned to stop them, but it was too late. The girl's face froze when she saw her mother lying on the floor. "Mother?" she said, her voice high and startled. "Mother, what is it?"

"Wait, Yaruko-chan," Sachi said. "Your father&"

"Mother!" the girl shouted, and ran to her. She fell to the floor and embraced her mother, weeping even as she did so. She already knew the truth. "Father?" she asked in a gasping voice. "What's happened to father?"

The two clung together, weeping in despair over the devastating blow their family had endured. Aikune crossed the room and placed one hand on the shoulder of each. Taeruko looked up at him through sorrowful eyes and grasped his hand tightly for a moment, then returned to her daughter.

Feeling as though he was an unwelcome presence, Sachi drew back and stepped through the doorway into the garden. He drew a deep breath and exhaled shakily. He had not known what to expect, but this had been worse than he anticipated.

Another young man stood quietly in the garden. Sachi recognized him as another of Yaruko's friends. The boy's name, Sachi recalled, was Nakamuro. The youngster turned to him.

"What has happened, Sachi-sama?" he asked.

The shugenja shook his head. "There was an attack in the north. Hikaru& was killed by raiders."

"Oh," Nakamuro said quietly. The sound of sobbing and wailing could be heard even here. The boy looked into the house wistfully. "Does it get easier as you grow older, Sachi-sama?"

The shugenja frowned. "Does what grow easier?"

The boy looked down at his feet. "To love someone you can never be with?"

Sachi blinked in surprise and looked back into the house.

"No," Sachi said.

Dragon Heart Plain, year 1150

Sachi lifted the tiny bundle carefully, ever so carefully. With one hand, he brushed the singed locks of hair from Yaruko's still, quiet face. She would never laugh again, never cry. She would never marry, or bear children. He would never see the beauty of Taeruko reflected in the eyes of her grandchildren. Isawa Yaruko was dead, murdered by the forces of Hantei XVI for her defiance and refusal to submit to his rule. She was dead, and he would spill an ocean of blood to avenge her death.

But now, she must be taken home.

Tears streamed from Sachi's eyes, wetting his cheeks and drying in his increasingly gray beard. He cradled her unmoving body like he would his own daughter, the closest thing he would ever have to his own daughter.

"Hold, Phoenix." The voice was cold, unfeeling. Sachi looked up from his grief and saw a patrol of the Steel Chrysanthemum's men, twenty strong, standing between him and the road that led back toward Phoenix lands.

"Let me pass," Sachi said softly, his voice cracking.

"This plain is under the control of the true Emperor, Hantei XVI," the leader returned in a mocking. "Do you have travel papers?"

"Let me pass," Sachi repeated. "Please."

"I thought not," the officer said with an expression of disgust. "By the Fortunes, is that girl dead? What manner of priest are you, to sully yourself by touching dead flesh?"

"Typical of a Phoenix," one of the other spirits replied. Sachi noticed the dull glow surrounding each of them, the glow of one of the Steel Chrysanthemum's spirit-soldiers. "They are corrupt and mad, every one of them. Why else would they betray the Emperor?"

"Enough of that," the leader barked. "Phoenix," he said, returning his attention to Sachi, "You will surrender and stand trial for your clan's refusal to accept the Emperor's commands. Should you be found innocent of involvement in your clan's betrayal of the true Emperor, you will be allowed to continue on your way. Now cast that corpse aside and come with us."

"Let. Me. Pass." Sachi's voice was firm now, brimming with anger and hatred. "This girl is a daughter of Isawa, and she will be returned home. Stand aside. Now."

"Do not presume to command me!" the leader said, drawing his blade. "You are a traitor and a heretic, and you will surrender or I will execute you in the Emperor's name here and now!"

Sachi gently set Yaruko's body on the soft grass, placing her hands at rest against her chest. "Wait for me just a moment, little blossom," he whispered. Then he rose, and turned his wrathful gaze upon the Chrysanthemum's men. As his dark eyes fixed upon them, a low rumble shook the ground. The men cast a nervous glance at one another

"Do not wait for him to use his magic!" the patrol leader commanded. "Kill him!"

Dozens of arrows filled the air in seconds, but a wall of stone erupted around Sachi and Yaruko, protecting them from harm. "You should have stood aside," Sachi roared, his voice rising from the earth itself. "Now not even blood will remain to mark your passing."

"Charge!" the leader screamed, brandishing his katana. "Death to the Phoenix!"

"I have enough death already," Sachi growled.

The air was filled with thunder and screams.

The Grove of the Masters, year 1162

The radiant autumn hues filled the Grove with brilliant reds, yellows, and oranges. Two figures walked quietly among the trees, their passage only barely disturbing the majestic carpet of leaves that covered the ground. For most of their walk, they did not speak, content to enjoy one another's company. Finally, Sachi spoke. "Have you and the other Masters discovered anything regarding young Aikune?"

"No," Taeruko said tersely, clearly upset by the subject.

Sachi looked at her sidelong. "We do not have to discuss this, of course. I was only curious. I have no wish to anger you."

"No, it's alright," Taeruko said after a moment. "I am merely frustrated. Isawa's Last Wish is the most powerful artifact ever known to exist, and it is gone, hidden somewhere in the hands of an insolent child."

Sachi sighed deeply. "Much has changed since Yaruko's death," he said. "We have all changed. Things are not what they once were."

Taeruko scowled. "There are few among the living who can speak to me of her death," she said. "You are among them, but I ask you not to dredge up painful memories."

"Aikune has changed," Sachi insisted. "Much of what he has become, you must admit, is a result of your own hatred for him. You have punished him for decades, though you know he and Nakamuro did all they could to save her. When will it end?"

It was several moments before Taeruko spoke. "I cannot forgive him. Even if I wished to do so, I cannot."

"Why?" Sachi pressed.

"Because I am the Master of Earth," she answered. "Earth must be unyielding. The Last Wish should never have been sought out. No mortal should wield it, even if it seems as though that mortal might bring the Phoenix into a new age. The risk for destruction is too great. He will doom us all, even if he wishes otherwise."

"A good reason to fear him, perhaps even despise him," Sachi agreed, "but not to hold him accountable for the past."

"I cannot waver," Taeruko said with a sigh. For the first time in years, it seemed she truly looked her age. For a brief instant, she was nothing more than a tired old woman. "Others look to me for strength and security. To them, I am the mountain. I cannot crack or show weakness. I cannot change."

Sachi was silent for a time. "Your burden is greater than I imagined," he said.

"It is," she replied softly. "I must remain exactly as I am. Unwavering, unrelenting& unmarried." She looked at him with soft eyes. "No matter how much I might wish it otherwise."

Sachi said nothing, only smoothed a hand over his long, grey beard.

She turned back to the path, her face returning to its normal, somewhat irritated expression. "I have given all that I have to the Phoenix Clan, and they have prospered. One day, I will be asked to give more. On that day, I will do so gladly, and in doing so at last earn the peace I long for."

"So what should I pray for?" Sachi asked. "You wish for peace, but your peace cannot be found in this world. Yet if you were to pass on to the next& I would not know peace again." He shook his head. "There is no answer."

"Then pray for strength, Sachi," Taeruko answered. "It is all we can do."

Deep within the Northern Wall Mountains, three months ago

Shiba Aikune sat in the center of a hidden city, a legend given form that had been born a thousand years ago and died in the minds of an Empire, only to be born again and die again in recent months. Others moved through the city, but far fewer than ever before. Few had survived Iuchiban's attack, and more were no longer required. Gisei Toshi was protected by a power that mortal minds could barely comprehend. What could an army of samurai armed with the finest blades do to compare?

Someone is coming!

Aikune's eyes opened at once, a dim blaze surging to life in their depths. He surveyed the city with the enhanced sense the Wish afforded him, seeking out anything new in his static, constant environment.

There. Someone was walking through the city's center, seemingly unnoticed by anyone else. Aikune's hand went to the hilt of his blade. He could feel heat radiating from within, but he would not draw his blade until he must. He would not cast aside the lessons he had learned in exile so easily.

Instead he drew upon the Wish for guidance, and in an instant, he appeared at the stranger's side. "Who are you?" he said. His voice betrayed no anger or malice.

The old man blinked in surprise, then his face broken into a warm and familiar smile. "Shiba Aikune," he said. "I thought I might find you here."
"Sachi-sensei!" Aikune said, his hand moving quickly away from his sword. "What& how did you find this place?"

"These mountains are my friends," the old man answered. "Every stone and boulder. Did you imagine you could move an entire city and I would not sense it?"

Aikune frowned. "The Wish masked the arrival, I had thought. We were careful&"

"Too careful," Sachi admonished. "I did not sense your arrival, no, and the spirits kept your secret well. But I suspected there was a reason for their sudden silence. I sensed the void from a hundred miles away. You should be more cautious."

Aikune nodded. "We can correct that mistake. It will be easier to prepare with assurances that we are well hidden. You have my thanks, Sachi-sensei." He bowed.

"Prepare?" Sachi asked. "For what do you prepare?"

The young bushi sighed. "Iuchiban," he answered. "The Bloodspeaker longs to control the Wish. He hungers for it. We can sense him, even from here. He will turn his attention to us soon enough, and we may not be able to keep him from finding us. Our only option is to be ready to face him, and to destroy him once and for all."

Sachi nodded. "You would do the Empire a great service, my friend." He surveyed the city. "Have the Masters given you the support you require?"

"They do not know where I am," Aikune answered.

"They could be of great help to you, Aikune," Sachi said.

Aikune scowled. "I will return to Master Taeruko when I am ready," he said.

Sachi's expression grew grim. "Taeruko fell in battle against the Kusatte Iru even as you faced Iuchiban and protected Gisei Toshi," he said quietly. "She sacrificed herself to return the beast to sleep."

Aikune's mouth hung open. A tremble passed through him, as if some fundamental pillar of his existence had been removed. "Isawa Taeruko& dead?" He shook his head. "I cannot believe it. She was& eternal."
"Yes," Sachi agreed. "I find it difficult to believe myself." He folded his hands into his sleeves. "I keep expecting to find her walking in the Grove, or studying in the library. But she is gone." He paused for a moment.

"I never earned her forgiveness," Aikune whispered. "Yaruko's mother died, while still hating me."

"She did not hate you, Aikune," Sachi said. "Not in the way that you think. She stood against you because she had no choice. It was merely who she was."

Aikune nodded. "I have come to understand much of human nature since I began my journey with the Wish. I do not begrudge her for her actions. She did only what he must. Her path was set before her, just as was mine. Still, I cannot help but regret."

"Then know that she watches us now from Yomi," Sachi said. "One day, you will speak to her about it again, and all will finally be done. Until then, take comfort."

"Thank you, sensei," Aikune said. "Thank you."

Sachi turned to leave.

"Wait," Aikune said. "What of the Council? Who will become the new Master of Earth?"

Sachi looked back at Aikune, his ancient eyes now clouding with doubt. "I do not know," he said. "I have but one more thing to do, then I am bound for Kyuden Isawa, as they have requested my counsel on the matter."

"I hope they intend to offer you Taeruko's position," Aikune said. "There are none more deserving."

Isawa Sachi said nothing, only bowed his head and left the Hidden City.

The Phoenix mountains, the present

"And that is my tale," Sachi whispered. "I hope you find it acceptable."

There was no reply, only the sense that each word that he had been spoken was being patiently and cautiously weighed.

Isawa Sachi remained kneeling, deep in meditation. He felt the change in temperature as Isawa Ochiai approached, and could smell the vague scent of incense as she lit upon the ground behind him. "Greetings, Sachi-san," she said. "Am I interrupting?"

"Not at all," Sachi said. "I am simply an old man meditating. There is little to interrupt. Perhaps if I had been practicing my sumotori kata, I would be more irritable."

Ochiai smiled. "I have heard much of your prowess in the ring, sensei. I hope to witness it firsthand one day."

"Combat is not for sport," Sachi returned. "I have come to understand that in my long life." He rose and brushed the dust from his robes. "Has the council come to a decision?"

Ochiai seemed surprised. "Yes, we have. There was no discussion to be had. You are the unanimous selection as new Master of Earth, Sachi-sensei." She gestured back toward Kyuden Isawa. "Would you join us?"

"Of course," Sachi said. He gestured for the younger woman to lead the way, then fell in behind her. As they walked, he looked back over his shoulder toward the great mountain.

Your tale , a voice came from the mountain, is acceptable. We have done as you asked .

Sachi looked up. The mountain's face had been reshaped. Now, rather than cold, unfeeling stone, the mountain bore the visage of a young Taeruko, full of beauty and promise. Her quiet, understated smile was just as he remembered it from his youth. Beside her was the image of her beloved Hikaru, and between them the beautiful young Yaruko.

The mountains would remember them, now and always.

 

 

 

Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!