The ritual lasted for hours, and during those hours Kato could feel the kami moving around the Island, concealing its secrets from the scouting ships. The air kami danced around the Island, obscuring their vision with a dense mist. The water kami moved the waves, preventing the green clad kobune from getting closer. Even the earth and fire kami were lending the strength and energy, allowing the shugenja to keep on going. And every now and then, a kansen would lend his force as well, helping for its own benefic, no doubt.
Kato could feel the kami as he had never felt them before. He could touch them as they flew by his skin. He could hear them singing by his ears, he could taste their power, smell their aroma. But he could not see them. Since the beginning of the ritual, the white mist covered the area, and he could not see beyond his own hands; but he did not care. He was surrounded by the kami, and that is all he needed to know. And yet, when the ritual was finished, and the scouts were gone, when the kami’s song ended and the dance was done; the mist remained. The ronin shugenja sat there, looking at the distance like a small child waiting for his father. His eyes blank, a dense mist covering his pupils; his vision no longer his own.
* * *
Somewhere in the Emerald Empire, a few weeks ago.
“Isawa-san, Isawa-san.” The voice was soft and distant, almost imperceptible, as it echoed through the walls that created the simple building. A single bushi stood by the door, looking inside trying to see through the piles of scrolls gathered all around the small room. He could barely see the small figure of the young Phoenix sitting among the piles of scrolls. “Isawa-san, are you here?”
The shugenja was so deep in her thoughts that she could not hear the magistrate calling for her. She was sitting on the floor, surrounded by the same scrolls she had been reading for the past year. By now she could have them memorized, yet whenever she picked one up, she always found something new, something interesting that captured her imagination. The story of the Fox Clan was even more captivating that she could have ever imagined. From the day they stayed behind after the Ki-Rin Clan left to explore beyond the borders of Rokugan; when the Lion took over their lands, and their recognition as the first Minor Clan; to the recent joining to the Mantis Clan. There was nothing dull on their history. But among all that, what she found most interesting was the scarce details about the kitsune spirits that joined their ranks. She could not find much information about them, but she was convinced there had to be more.
For a year now she had been studying the scrolls and asking questions. She could sense that some of town people were growing tired of her questions… but there was so much to learn; and seeking knowledge was her duty. After all, her sensei has instructed her on learning the secrets of these spirits. Where do they come from? Why is this place so sacred to them? What motivated them to take human form and join the Fox Clan? Perhaps one day her hosts will trust her enough to share their secrets-
“Isawa-san!” The voice was louder this time. “What are you doing here?”
She looked at the bushi standing near the door. Like always, a serious complexion governed his face. There was something in his face that made the shugenja wondered if perhaps he was one of them… Of course he would not answer whenever she tried to question that. For the past year she had seen him change his armor from a red-brown to a more green tone as the Mantis took control of the land. In that time, she had seen her companions and a few visitors been ‘escorted’ out of the village when their terms with the Kitsune ended, and the Mantis ruled not to renew them. So far she has considered herself lucky that she still had time to continue her duty, but perhaps it was finally her time. No, there was still more to learn, she could not leave now.
“What do you mean what am I doing?” she finally replied. “Can’t you see I am fulfilling my duty? There is much knowledge to gain from these scrolls…”
“Have you not heard the rumors?” The magistrate interrupted, his face suddenly filled with worry.
“What rumors?” She asked with great curiosity. No rumor could be more important than the search for knowledge; but for the first time in a year she could see an actual emotion in the magistrate’s face. Whatever it was must be important.
“Kyuden Isawa was attacked…”
The young shugenja stood up in an instant, her heart racing faster than any Utaku steed. Suddenly the world was empty; there was nothing else of importance. The scroll she was reading fell to the floor as her long uncared brown hair followed her body’s sudden movement, knocking down a few more scrolls. The magistrate’s words echoed in her mind. She could hear him talking, but she could not make sense of the words… Kyuden Isawa was attacked? How? When..? By whom..?
“… the army of dark fire …”
The Army of Dark Fire? What in the fortune’s name is an army of dark fire? Her mind rushed through the possibilities. But she could not find an answer; at least not one that made sense. There was too much as stake for her to think straight. She was sure that the libraries would be protected; so much knowledge could not be lost. And the art… the art must be protected…
“… ordered it destroyed …”
Destroyed! Did she hear the word destroyed? No, Kyuden Isawa could not have been destroyed. There was too much of importance there… the libraries… the art… the people… the… people… her father! Was it that time of the year? Every year, by the end of winter her father would travel to Kyuden Isawa, to be there the day the flowers first blossomed. Her mother was always too busy to go with him, but sometimes she would be able to accompanny her father. She remembered the long days of waiting, the winter cold slowly fading. Yes… it was that time of the year. Her father was bound to be in Kyuden Isawa.
She had not seen her father for years. Not since her gempukku. Not since the day she chose her name. Her father was furious that she did not honor her ancestors, and instead chose to honor a minor clan by taking their name as hers. Of course, she did not want to honor the clan, but the spirits that live in these lands. Not that it really mattered. She had taken the name of another family as her own. The murmurs behind her back would last for months, for a whole year her father would not even speak to her. When the chance came up to study the history of the Fox Clan, she could not resist. It was her life-long dream, to finally commune with the fox spirits; there was nothing to consider, so left without saying a word to her father. But now, Kyuden Isawa was under attack, and he was there. What if she never saw him again? No! That could not be…
In an instant, the young shugenja rushed past the magistrate, leaving everything she was carrying behind. The bushi wondered if she was someone receiving the kami’s blessing as her small figure jumped over the stairs and out of the building. Without giving it a second thought, she ran to her horse, and readied herself for the gallop. She was not sure what she could do; and she did not care. Her father needed her now, and Isawa Kitsune will be there for him this time.
She rode for about an hour, her mind completely blank save for the memory of her father. She will reach him in time; she had to. She would do whatever she could to save him. All those years of training and meditation would finally pay off. Her mind rushed through all the spells she knew. All her prayers. All her scrolls… The scrolls! On her rush to get to her father; she had left her scrolls!
“Fool!? she cried out as loud as she could. Her horse stopped at once, as if it could sense her anger, causing her to almost fall to the ground. The shugenja looked back towards Kyuden Kitsune. How could she have forgotten her scrolls? That is not the way an Isawa should act. Those scrolls were sacred, and there was no justification to leave them behind. She had no choice; she had to turn back for them.
As she was about to retrace her step, however, she spotted a figure racing towards her; a lone rider approaching her from the Kitsune forest. It took her a moment to realize it, but there was no doubt now; it was the Kitsune magistrate.
“Isawa-san!” he cried as soon as he was within reach. “Finally I catch up with you.”
Isawa Kitsune could not believe her eyes. Even from the distance, she could clearly see a bundle of scrolls, neatly tied on the back of the horse; her scrolls. “What- “, she began to ask. ?What are you doing here?”
“I should have expected you to not listen to me, Isawa-san”, replied the magistrate as he handed a scroll to her. “I have been assigned to make sure you reach your destination safe.”
The shugenja found it hard to believe, but the papers in front of her did not lie. Not only was the magistrate assigned to guard her, but the papers were clearly signed by the Mantis. Could it be that after all this time, the Mantis were now ready to help the Phoenix…
“We should hurry then, Isawa-san”, said the bushi giving her the bundle of scrolls. There is a long path ahead of us.
“Hai”, replied the shocked shugenja. “Thanks…” A sudden realization came to her. Even after a year of seen him daily, she did not know his name. “Kitsune-san, if you don’t mind. What is you name?”
The magistrate let out a soft laugh. Of course he had told her his name before, but he was expecting the question, in fact, he was expecting it to be asked more than once in the long trip ahead.
TO BE CONTINUED