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Immortal
By Rich Wulf

Kitsu Ineko knelt at the edge of the mountaintop, looking down upon the vast plains of the Lion Clan. From so high, the lands looked serene, almost peaceful. That was what she enjoyed most about this place. Lookout Mountain radiated a sense of security, of stability. Ineko had always sensed the powerful spirit within the heart of the mountain. It watched over the Lion Clan, protecting them from harm. She sometimes felt as if the mountain spirit recognized her. Such powerful spirits were sometimes difficult to read, the weight of millennia making them distant and withdrawn, but she often felt the mountain greet her with open, friendly curiosity. She felt safe here, protected, as if nothing in the world could harm her.

Of course that was mostly an illusion. These lands were hardly peaceful. For her clan, it was a time of change violent and unsettling change. The lord of her clan, Matsu Nimuro, had recently died in battle with the Unicorn Clan. With a new Champion and new enemies threatening the Lion's position as the Emperor's Right Hand, her clan would soon be forced to prove itself again. For the Lion there was truly only one way to prove one's worth.

War.

Ineko sighed and attempted to focus once more, drawing her attention away from such unsettling matters and concentrating upon the dance of the elements. She did not relish the idea of war, but war would come, and when it did her lord would call upon her. If her magic was not strong enough, the noble bushi of the Lion Clan would suffer. She reached out with her mind, across the Spirit Realms, listening for the voices of the ancestors. Perhaps the shiryo, the blessed guardians that watched over the Lion from Yomi, could grant her some peace of mind.

Ineko found the presence of several shiryo easily. The Lion ancestors never turned their eyes far from their children. She greeted them with a silent prayer, but they did not immediately reply. She sensed confusion, consternation. The shiryo looked not upon Ineko, but past her. The young sodan-senzo opened her eyes and looked over one shoulder as she realized what the ancestors were trying to tell her. She was being watched.

A samurai in brilliant orange armor stood only a few feet away. He had the elegant features and pale complexion of a Shiba, and wore that family's distinctive mon upon his chest. He watched her intently, his dark eyes reflecting some unknowable wisdom. Ineko felt uncomfortable merely being under his scrutiny.

"Konnichiwa, Shiba-sama," she said, bowing politely without rising.

The man laughed lightly. "Good morning," he said, bowing in reply. "My apologies, my lady, I did not intend to disturb your meditation. I merely wished to see Lookout Mountain."

"It is a lovely place," Ineko agreed. "My father was sent to tend the temples in Shiranai Toshi before I was born, so I came here often as a child. When I passed my own gempukku, I requested to be returned here."

He grinned wryly. "A friend of mine is also quite attached to this mountain," he said. "So we returned here, seeking peace and clarity."

"Your friend is very wise," she said.

"We try," the man replied enigmatically. His grin faded, replaced by a look of embarrassment. "I am being rude. Please, do not allow me to delay your meditations."

Ineko nodded silently and studied the man for a long moment. There was something peculiar behind his eyes, but that was only to be expected of a Phoenix. They were a peculiar people, obsessed with mysteries the rest of Rokugan did not understand. He did not have the bearing of a violent man; he did not even wear his swords. She smiled faintly at him and returned her gaze to the plains. Silence returned, though Ineko sensed that the man did not move away.

"Is there anything else?" she asked.

"I apologize again," he said hurriedly, "but are you a Kitsu? I only ask because I noticed the color of your eyes&"

Ineko looked up at him again. Her eyes shone golden in the morning light, with just a hint of red. "I am Ineko, of House Kitsu," she replied. "Why do you ask?"

"It is said that no other family in all of Rokugan has as strong a tie to the shiryo as you do," he answered. "If that is true, then perhaps you can help me."

Ineko frowned. She sensed the eyes of the ancestors watching the man with disdain and confusion. "Who are you?" she asked.

"I am Shiba Aikune," he replied.

Ineko rose immediately with a gasp. She whispered a swift prayer and a shield of spirits moved about her, protecting her from harm. She cast about for any path of escape, finding only the path where Aikune stood and the sheer drop behind her.

Aikune sighed. "I mean you no harm, Ineko-san," she said. "The Aikune who hated your clan is dead now."

"Lies," she said with a sneer. "If you meant no harm you would have announced your coming to the Ikoma. Your arrival would be known throughout Shiranai Toshi. Yet you stalk about in secrecy. Why would such a famous samurai not announce his arrival?"

"I did not wish to draw my enemies upon the local lords," Aikune said. "I also know the Lion do not forgive easily, and seven years ago I did your clan an unforgivable harm. I thought it better that I come secretly."

"If you think I will keep your arrival a secret, Aikune, you are wrong," she said defiantly.

"If you think I will still be here by the time the Ikoma arrive, we are both wrong," he answered, folding his arms across his chest. "I seek no violence, Ineko-san, nor will I endure it leveled against me pointlessly. I told you who I was because I hoped you might help me."

"Why would I help a man who slaughters his allies and destroys entire cities?" she snapped.

Aikune showed no insult or surprise at her words. He held out one hand, and a fiery aura suddenly suffused it. "Because of this," he said.

A wave of mystical energy washed over Ineko's senses. She felt her knees buckle as she looked into the burning light, but maintained her balance.

"Isawa's Last Wish," she whispered numbly, staring into the magical fire with undisguised terror.

Aikune looked into the light as well, but his eyes were sad. "It was arrogance that led me to blame the Lion Clan for the Phoenix's defeats in our war with the Dragon Clan," he said. "It was soon after I claimed the Last Wish. I believed victory would have been within our grasp if the Lion only aided us as they promised. I did not care that your own lands were threatened by the Tsuno. I was blind to the now obvious manipulations that had turned Dragon and Phoenix against one another. I was brash, weak, selfish, and the Wish reflects the one who wields it. Matsu Shinya died that day, as did many of the Lion samurai who stepped forward to defend him. If I had not regained control, the Phoenix would have suffered as well. I regret their deaths, but that is a mistake I do not intend to repeat."

"They say you destroyed Gisei Toshi," Ineko said.

"Do they?" he asked. Aikune closed his hand. The fiery glow faded. He looked at Ineko again. "I do not deserve your help, Ineko-san," he said. "I have wronged the Lion greatly. Yet I sense my control of the Wish unraveling. I fear that if I cannot find the answers I seek, I may do even greater harm."

"So you come here to threaten me?" Ineko snapped. "To intimidate me into helping? I do not care what power you wield, Phoenix. Neither I nor any Lion will be your pawn."

Aikune gave her a disappointed look. "I did not come here seeking anyone," he said. "Meeting you was a coincidence. You had the look of someone who might help. I see I was wrong." Shrugging, he turned and began to walk back down the mountain path.

"Wait," Ineko said, hardly believing she had dared to stop him.

Aikune looked back at her. His eyes were dull and tired.

"Why did you come to this place in particular, knowing how much the Lion still despise you?" she asked.

"We created this mountain," Aikune answered. He blinked, took a deep breath, and smiled weakly. "The Last Wish created this mountain," he corrected. "It was a gift for its father, Isawa. The Wish has a will and intelligence of its own, and it remembers this place fondly."

Ineko did not want to believe, but found she could not deny the ring of truth in Aikune's words. Kitsu scholars often wondered why a single mountain stood so deep in the plains. It also explained why the spirit of the mountain seemed so much younger than others of its kind. Could it be true? She felt a swell of recognition from the kami beneath her feet, a sense of regret that Aikune and the Wish were leaving.

"The mountain is very beautiful," she said. "I have always felt safe here."

The Phoenix looked up at her with a wry smile. "The Wish is happy that you like it," he said. "What can I do to help you, Aikune-san?" Ineko asked softly.

His eyes shone with momentary hope. "Is it true that the Kitsu understand the ancestors more deeply than any other shugenja?" he asked. She nodded.

"Then you can help me," he said. "Tell me why I do not hear my ancestors."

She was struck by the intensity in his words. "Why do you find it so strange, Aikune?" she asked. "Many samurai live their entire lives without ever hearing their ancestors, though I confess such a thing is unusual for a Shiba."

"It is unheard of," he corrected. "We are a very spiritual family. We hear the voices of those who came before as well as our own past lives. They grant us wisdom, guidance, and protection. For some these voices are rare, to be sure, but I have never heard anything."

"Some men are born entirely cut off from shiryo," Ineko said. "The Kitsu call them Forsaken. There is& a void around their souls, an emptiness that silences the ancestors. The spirits are disquieted by their presence." Ineko frowned. "I sensed such a void around you when I first saw you, Aikune."

"Why is it there?" he asked fervently. "What can I do to remove this curse?"

"It is not a curse," she replied. "It is simply a fact of existence, as natural and mysterious as a thunderstorm. The ancestors choose or ignore who they will. There is undoubtedly a reason, but some mysteries are beyond even a Kitsu's understanding."

Aikune fell into a brooding silence. Ineko said nothing, sensing that he was preparing to say more. Before he could speak, she felt a sudden flash of awareness, a warning from the mountain and the ancestors. Aikune saw the look of shock upon her face and the Last Wish's burning aura instantly suffused his body. An impossibly large creature suddenly hauled the upper half of its body over the mountain ledge. It was a reptilian beast, its flesh as pink as raw meat. Its breath seared the air and stank of rotten meat. It lashed out at Ineko with one long, muscular arm, but Aikune pushed her aside and lunged forward with a flaming sword. He slashed at its palm, causing it to howl in rage.

While his attention was occupied with the creature, a blast of dark energy struck Aikune from behind. Ineko looked up from where she had fallen to see three gaunt, robed men, their faces adorned with a network of wicked scars - Bloodspeakers. Aikune turned to face them just as another unleashed his spell. Green energy tainted Aikune's bright aura of flame. He fell to his knees. The oni slammed one hand down upon Aikune, crushing him upon the mountain ledge.

"A Kitsu," one of the cultists hissed, noticing Ineko at last. "Kill her swiftly, then we will deal with the Wish's master."

The oni reached for her with its other clawed hand.

Ineko closed her eyes and whispered a brief prayer. The mountain rumbled beneath her feet as its spirit roused to protect her. The oni roared in confusion as the stony ledge collapsed beneath its fingertips; it vanished over the side before a thunderous crash punctuated the end of its fall. The three Bloodspeakers glared at her with dangerous expressions, which quickly became looks of fear as Aikune rose from the demon's handprint.

One cultist began to speak a hurried spell, but Aikune screamed in fury and slashed the air with his sword. A wave of fire rolled toward the Bloodspeakers, leaving nothing but ash upon the air.

"Aikune," Ineko said, staring at the Phoenix in awe. Though his armor was covered with dust and the oni's blood, he was apparently unharmed.

He looked around with a dazed expression. The crumbling edge of the cliff shifted, and Ineko staggered. Aikune reached out instinctively, steadying her with one hand.

The fires of the Last Wish washed over her, but there was no heat or pain, only a flash of intense light. Ineko's eyes rolled back and she was lost to visions of the past.

----------------

Shiba Tsuzaki stood on the shore, looking into the vast sea. His eyes were fixed on the distant horizon, his expression earnest and courageous. Tears stained his cheeks, but he ignored them. There was no longer any reason for sorrow.

He had seen it all, the final battle, acted out in his dreams like a play upon a stage. He saw the Seven Thunders enter Fu Leng's Iron Citadel. He saw them stand, unflinching, against the darkness. Their courage never faltered, and Isawa's magic was true. He watched them die, one by one, until only Shinsei and the Scorpion remained.

He watched them flee across that wretched wasteland the Crab called the Shadowlands. He saw the foul things that pursued them, a monstrous army led by the demon who bore Fu Leng's name. He saw the shadows surround Shosuro and the Little Prophet, and knew that certainly no force born of this earth could save them.

And then his father was there.

Shiba lashed out with his sword. Tsuzaki remembered the blade well. Tsamaru, his mother, had forged Ofushikai with her own hands and strengthened it with her magic. The pearl-handled katana was her last gift to Shiba, given on the day of their son's birth. On the day it was given, Shiba promised that he would always return to protect his children. The blade cut mercilessly through the First Oni's flesh, but not before its poison had seeped into Shiba's veins. Tsuzaki saw the pained look in his father's eyes as he died. Though his wounds were great, that was not the source of his agony. Tsuzaki saw Shinsei kneel beside the dying god. The two spoke for a time, but Tsuzaki could not hear their words. He heard only the last things said between the prophet and his father.

"I must fulfill my promise," Shiba whispered.

"Then find a way, Shiba," Shinsei said with a sad smile.

"I will help you keep your promise, father," Tsuzaki whispered, as if in reply to the distant vision. "My soul, my life, for the Phoenix."

Tsuzaki fell to one knee and plunged his hand into the cold sea water. Perhaps what he attempted was foolish, arrogant, the action of a boy who would not believe his father could die, but pride was the furthest thing from Tsuzaki's mind. He stood, and as he drew his hand from the sea, he drew Ofushikai forth as well. The blade gleamed in Shiba Tsuzaki's hands, and ancient wisdom shone in his eyes.

----------------

Shiba Tsukune reached the foot of the wall, but too late.

She found Ujimitsu's broken body laying among the ash and rubble, his sword still clutched in one hand. His once fine kimono was now stained with soot and blood. His once handsome face was now burned and smashed. She thought he was surely dead, but then his eyes opened to look at her. She fell to her knees beside the fallen hero, slim shoulders shaking with quiet sobs.

Isawa Tsuke had taken so much from them. The Dark Master of Fire had wounded Tadaka, killed Uona and Tomo, and slaughtered countless other kinsmen. Now Ujimitsu had fallen as well. She had never imagined a time when Ujimitsu would not lead the Phoenix. She could not imagine a future without him. For the first time since she had sworn fealty to the Phoenix Champion and Elemental Council, Shiba Tsukune felt completely without hope.

"What will we do now?" Tsukune whispered, though she expected no answer.

Ujimitsu's broken face twisted in a smile. He leaned forward as much as he was able, pushing his sword across the earth toward her. The blade was untouched by Tsuke's foul magic. The handle gleamed pearl white and the blade shone like clear water.

"My soul, my life, for the Phoenix," Ujimitsu whispered as he died.

A look of understanding dawned upon Tsukune's face. Fire shone in her eyes as she lifted Ofushikai in one hand, finding its weight strangely familiar.

----------------

Kitsu Ineko awakened to find herself lying on a palette in a ruined temple. Earnest peasants labored on the broken walls, building anew what had recently been destroyed. The air was bitterly cold, and she clutched her thin robes tight about her body as she tried to find her bearings. A plain man in the elaborate armor of a Phoenix officer sat beside her.

"Where am I?" Ineko asked, sitting up quickly. A large statue of Bishamon dominated the temple. It seemed to look down upon her with an unpleasant expression.

"The city of Gisei Toshi," the man replied, "Aikune left you in my care."

"Shiranai Toshi is weeks away from Phoenix territory," she exclaimed, "and I thought Gisei Toshi was destroyed!"

"The Wish grants Aikune many abilities; swiftness of travel is merely one of them," the Phoenix said. "As for the city, its death was a convenient fiction to convince the Bloodspeakers to abandon their attack. Aikune moved the city deeper into the mountains."

"He moved the city?" she answered, still amazed. "Even with magic& how?"

"How' is not a word Aikune often troubles himself with," the man answered.

Ineko frowned, turning things over in her mind. "It makes no sense," she said at last. "If he has the power to move a city, why not simply destroy Iuchiban?"

"Because power alone is nothing," the man replied. "That is a truth Aikune is only now beginning to understand. Iuchiban had a disturbingly complete understanding of the Wish. He saw its weaknesses and flaws. He very nearly seized its power for himself."

"Then we are fortunate that Iuchiban is dead," Ineko replied.

"Perhaps," the man answered, though he did not sound convinced. "Iuchiban knew things that he could not have known. Even with his Bloodspeaker spies spread throughout the Empire, he knew things about the Wish's history and its creation that he could not have learned. Since Iuchiban's death, many of the surviving Bloodspeakers continue to hunt for Aikune, as you have seen. The few we have captured and interrogated believe that their dead master somehow engineered the war between Dragon and Phoenix, Aikune's recovery of the Wish, and a few other events that led to the Battle of Gisei Toshi."

"Is that possible?" Ineko asked.

"I doubt it," the Phoenix said. "Yet Iuchiban believed it was true. This makes me believe that someone taught Iuchiban what he knew about the Wish. Someone who manipulated him into attacking Aikune and convinced him it was his own idea. Someone who believed they could control the Wish but was uncertain of Aikune's power and resolve. The Battle of Gisei Toshi was a test."

"Who would cause the deaths of so many just for a test?" Ineko asked.

"I do not know," the Phoenix admitted. "Even Aikune does not know, and that worries me. Some unseen enemy seeks to dominate the Wish. Even the Wish is afraid; it no longer trusts Aikune as implicitly as it once did. I see the gulf between them widen every day, and I wonder if our enemy is merely waiting for the moment to strike."

"So let Aikune cast the wish aside," she said, "Into the sea, or into the Dragon's volcano."

"The Wish is a living thing," Mirabu said. "It was abandoned once before in the manner you suggest, and it was nearly driven mad. We cannot cast aside Isawa's creation again. It has too much power to do good and too much potential to do evil."

"Then I wish you good fortune in solving your mystery," Ineko said. "But why did Aikune bring me here? Am I a prisoner of some sort?"

"Prisoner?" the Phoenix replied, amused by the notion. "Fortunes, no. Aikune was worried for you. When he touched you, the Wish reached out. You were overcome with visions. He was afraid he had harmed you accidentally."

"I am fine, I think," she replied.

"Good," he said, sounding relieved. "If you do not mind me asking, what did you see?"

"I saw the Shiba line, from Tsuzaki to Tsukune," she said. "I watched the Ancestral Sword of the Phoenix pass from one hand to the next, throughout the centuries."

"Interesting," he said. "For a thousand years, Shiba reincarnated himself in each of our Clan Champions, until his mother Amaterasu became displeased with mortals, reclaimed his sword and placed it in the Celestial Heavens. Now it hangs in the sky beyond the forbidden Dragon Road, where only the immortals tread, where Shiba Tsukune's spirit protects it. Since then we have been without Shiba's guidance. I wonder why the Wish would choose to show you such a thing."

A servant appeared by the Phoenix's side, offering a sealed scroll. "Lord Mirabu," the boy said, "a message from Master Akiko."

The samurai nodded and accepted it, offering Ineko an apologetic smile as he perused its contents silently. When complete, he rolled the scroll and handed it back to the servant. Ineko now stared at the man in awe.

"Mirabu?" she asked. "You are Shiba Mirabu?"

"I am," he said.

She flushed deeply and bowed her head. "My apologies, my lord," she said. "I did not recognize you."

"I suppose I am used to that," he said with a small laugh.

"I meant no offense, my lord," she said, ashamed.

"There is no need for apology," he said soberly. "It was my fault for not addressing myself. I have brought you undue shame, Ineko-san. Now if you will excuse me, I must draft a reply for the Master of Water."

"Of course," she said as the Phoenix Champion rose, bowed, and left.

"Humility," Aikune said as Mirabu departed. "Mirabu's greatest virtue and his greatest flaw. He is too eager to serve the Council, to serve the Shogun, to serve me, even. He does not realize that if he shares power too easily he will never earn the respect he deserves. He could be a great leader."

Ineko looked up with a start. She was not certain if Aikune had approached her silently or had merely appeared. "Perhaps Mirabu does not care what others think of him, so long as the clan is strong."

Aikune grinned. "You know him well, for having just met him."

"I can say only what I see, Aikune-san," Ineko said.

His smile fell and his dark gaze intensified. "A demon once told Mirabu that I would kill him, and he would be remembered as a traitor. Even such a dark fate does not deter his loyalty. What sort of man has such faith in his friends?"

"I do not know, Aikune-san," Ineko said softly.

"Then let us talk of other things," he said, sighing. "Then tell me more of your visions. You say you saw the line of Shiba?"

Ineko nodded. "From the first to the last."

"So then you saw my mother," Aikune said. "She was the last to bear the Soul. She allowed Osano Wo to take her into the heavens so that the Soul would not die with her, its wisdom scattered to the ether."

"I saw her," Ineko said.

"Is there nothing more?" he pressed.

"I saw a great deal, Aikune. What do you wish to know?" Ineko said, but then hesitated, recalling something she had somehow not considered important before. "There was a presence throughout it all. An entity lingering at the edges of perception but unseen, always watching but unable to act, struggling to pierce the bounds of destiny but forever kept in shadow."

"What was it?" Aikune asked. "Who was it?"

Ineko shook her head again, but as she concentrated, the memory became clearer.

"It was you, Aikune-san," she said. "The Soul of Shiba calls to you, but you cannot hear. The Wish sensed the call, but did not understand."

"But you could," Aikune said, looking at her with new respect. "The ancestors speak to you, and thus the Soul does as well." He extended one hand, fire suffusing his fingertips. Gently, he touched her cheek. "What does Shiba say now?" he asked.

Ineko felt a faint whisper, an echo of ancient wisdom, but there were no visions like before. "Nothing," she said. "It is too distant now, too weak."

Aikune rested one hand upon her shoulder. "Then lead me to it," he said.

There was a peal of thunder, and the floor rumbled beneath Ineko. The temple crumbled and fell away on all sides. The Phoenix workers faded away like smoke on the wind. Nothing remained around them except for empty, black sky. Beneath them, a ribbon of silver stretched in either direction. Looking down one way, Ineko saw nothing but an inky void. In the other direction, she saw a shimmering silver haze. She felt the pull of Shiba, much stronger now, in the heart of the light.

"The voice is much closer now," she said. "What did you do, Aikune? Where are we?"

"The Celestial Heavens," Aikune said in a grim voice.

He set off along the Dragon Road, not looking back to see if Ineko intended to follow. The young sodan-senzo hurried to her feet and followed.

----------------

"Arrogance," the demon's voice shook the empty heavens. The monstrous warrior stood before the shining gates of Tengoku. She glared down at Aikune with obvious rage, chest heaving with each angry breath. "You would dare seek to enter Tengoku?"

"I seek to reclaim that which belongs to my clan, Okura-sama," Aikune said, looking up at the celestial guardian impassively. "That which Amaterasu stole from us."

"Impudence!" the demon snapped, clasping its clawed hands into fists. "You would accuse Amaterasu of theft?"

"Why not theft?" Aikune snapped. "She knows nothing of honor. She forced her own son to break his promise to always protect the Phoenix. What honorable goddess would do such a thing?"

"If you believe you can speak such slander merely because Lady Sun is dead, you are sorely mistaken, mortal," Okura said. She reached over one shoulder and drew a heavy iron blade. "I will cast you into the heart of Jigoku."

Aikune's eyes narrowed. His hands shone with dark red fire.

"Wait, no," Kitsu Ineko said, stepping between them hurriedly. "This need not end in blood. In the name of the Kitsu who gave you your name, Okura, stay your hand!"

"A Lion?" Okura said, looking down at the sodan-senzo in surprise. The mighty guardian took one step back. "Why does a noble Lion stand beside one who slanders Heaven?"

"Slander is not Aikune's intent," Ineko said. "He seeks wisdom that only Shiba can offer, and Shiba's soul is bound in Tengoku."

"Unfortunate for him," Okura said. "No mortal may pass these gates."

Ineko looked from Aikune to the demon, thinking rapidly. The red glow around Aikune's hands had not faded, nor had the murderous look in his eyes. "Tell me, Okura-sama," she said. "Do you honor Lady Moon and Lord Sun?" "I do," Okura said without hesitation.

"Yet you honor the memory of Lady Sun, who was so angered by mortals that she took her own life?" Ineko said.

"I do," Okura said.

"Does that not strike you as contradictory, considering that the new Sun and Moon were once mortals?" Ineko said.

"That is not for me to question," Okura said. "I serve. That is the way of the samurai."

"A samurai serves, but not blindly," Ineko said. "The old Sun and Moon died because the Lying Darkness drove them to madness. What purpose does it serve to leave Shiba imprisoned here, when his imprisonment is a product of that madness?"

"By barring my path, you serve the Darkness that you once helped destroy, Okura," Aikune said.

The blaze in Okura's red eyes softened. She sheathed her sword, but hung her head in sorrow. "I am sorry, mortal, but my orders cannot be violated. No mortal may enter these gates. If you trespass in Tengoku, the wrath of the seven dragons will be upon you."

"So be it," Aikune said, moving to walk past her.

"Tell him to wait," said a voice from behind Okura.

Ineko felt the call of Shiba's voice much more strongly. A small woman stepped through the gates of Tengoku and onto the Dragon Road. The sodan-senzo recognized her from the visions. This was Tsukune, the last Soul of Shiba, now the Fortune of Rebirth. The Ancestral Sword of the Phoenix, Ofushikai, hung upon her hip.

"Aikune, stop!" Ineko called out.

He glared back at her, but the look in her eyes gave him pause.

"Your mother is here," she said.

Aikune looked at Ineko in confusion. "I see no one," he said.

"She is here," Ineko said. "She wants you to wait.

Aikune stopped, looking from Ineko to Okura uncertainly.

"Aikunes cannot see me, nor hear me," Tsukune said. "He cannot speak to his ancestors, but not due to the machinations of Iuchiban or any other villain. Yet there are those who have designs on him, and he will need Shiba's aid to fight them. He cannot hear us because his soul is incomplete."

"Incomplete?" Ineko said.

"What is she saying?" Aikune demanded.

"Give him this," Tsukune said, offering Ofushikai to her with both hands. "He will understand. I thought that I was called here to save Shiba, but my destiny, my battle, lies elsewhere. As does Shiba's. My life, my soul, for the Phoenix."

Aikune's eyes widened as the sword passed into Kitsu Ineko's hands. She offered it to him in turn, and he accepted with an uncharacteristically humble bow.

When Ineko turned toward Tsukune again, she was gone.

"It was me," Aikune said, drawing the sword and staring into its blade forlornly. "I can see now. It was always meant to be me. I was born to be the Soul of Shiba, but my destiny was thwarted."

Ineko watched the spiritual void around Aikune shift slightly, but it did not dissipate.

"I cannot hear him," Aikune said. "Even now, my destiny is denied. Why?"

"To be so far from Shiba left a wound in your soul," Ineko said. "I have sensed it since the moment I first met you, but I did not understand it until now."

"But the sword is here now!" Aikune said. "Where is Shiba? Why can I not hear him?"

"The void Shiba left behind has been filled by another," Ineko said. "The Last Wish now occupies the wound in your soul. Perhaps that is why you can control the Wish where all others have failed? You were not denied your destiny, Aikune, you have merely found another."

"That does not change the fact that we have come all this way for nothing," Aikune said. "I cannot hear Shiba's voice."

"No," Ineko said. "Your mother has passed the soul to another. She has added her wisdom to Shiba's, but she remains the Fortune of Rebirth. The Soul will pass to another once the sword has been removed from Tengoku."

Aikune looked at Okura warily. "This sword was bound here by Amaterasu's wish," he said. "If I try to take it from here, will you stop me, demon?" "If Tsukune believes it is time for the sword to return, then I trust her wisdom," Okura said. "Though if Amaterasu wished for the sword to remain, you may find yourself unable to remove it."

Aikune frowned and looked into the blade. He concentrated deeply, the fires of the Last Wish illuminating his body. They were pure now, brilliant white. Ineko could see the tendrils of the Wish's spiritual energy, reaching deep within the blade, altering the magic that created it. The sword shone brilliant orange, as if held in a forge. Her mystical senses felt something snap, and then Aikune's power faded again.

"Amaterasu commanded that Ofushikai, the sword that anchored Shiba's soul, remain here forever," Aikune said. "Thus the sword Amaterasu bound here longer exists. This one," he looked down at Ofushikai, "merely remains as a symbol of Shiba's promise. Henceforth Shiba's wisdom will be bound forever directly to the bloodline of my family. Whatever happens to the sword, the Soul of Shiba will remain among us so long as a single Shiba stands."

"An impressive display of power, mortal," Okura said cautiously. "Few can remake such a powerful artifact so effortlessly."

Aikune said no more. He bowed before Okura no Oni and started back down the Dragon Road.

"Watch him closely, sister," Okura said in a low voice, meant for Kitsu Ineko's ears alone.

----------------

Shiba Mirabu slumped onto a bench, exhausted. His journey from Gisei Toshi to Kyuden Isawa had been not been an easy one. With his clan at war again, he felt spread too thin. Between the Shogun, the Masters, Aikune, and his people it seemed as if he was needed everywhere at once. He thought back wryly to the legends of Ujimitsu, one of the clan's greatest Champions. Legends said that Ujimitsu could journey the Empire in instants, and even be in two places at once when needed.

If such was true, he wondered how Ujimitsu did it.

"Not extraordinarily difficult," came a quiet voice in reply. "Run very quickly. Always carry a small meal. Nap, don't sleep, and delegate authority."

Mirabu rose to his feet with a start. Soon a hundred others joined the first voice in a chorus of greetings and blessings. Above them all he sensed a singular, powerful presence. Shiba Mirabu felt a strange power surge through his body, an ancient wisdom fill his soul, and an oddly familiar weight at his hip.

The Phoenix Clan Champion looked down to see a pearl-handled katana, tucked beneath his obi.


 

 

Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!