The robed figure walked through the blowing sandstorm. The land around him was flat, featureless save for the pockmarks of ancient battles and rituals. The figure stood out in the storm, his bright orange robes whipping around him in the wind, the symbol of the Phoenix emblazoned in fiery red on his back. He walked carefully, a traveling stick poking at the ground, but to the careful eyes of the Hiruma patrol watching him there was something strange in his gait. He was moving towards the nearby Shiro Kuni. The patrol, a half dozen samurai in dark blue armor and thick clothes, moved silently toward the robed figure.
The Phoenix stopped, reaching into the folds of his traveling kimono and consulting a map. He looked, searching, through the storm. Seeking any kind of guide or landmark. His searching alone showed his youth, for there are no landmarks or guidelines in the Kuni provinces. Not since the Shadowlands took them away.
As they approached, they could see the figure carried a case of scrolls, marking him as a priest of the Kami. Despite their heavy armor, they made no sound as they approached. He turned, and found himself facing a man almost half again as tall as he was. In his surprise, he fell backwards, kicking up a small amount of chalk-white dirt.
“You are Isawa Takeshi of the Phoenix Clan?” the massive figure in blue armor asked, though to the young shugenja it seemed as much an order as a request. He gulped, standing and straightening his travelling kimono.
“I-I am, Hida-sama,” the Phoenix replied. The Hida held out his hand, and after a few moments of curiosity, the young shugenja placed his chop in the outstretched palm. It seemed almost dwarfed by the larger man’s hand, and for a moment Takeshi wondered if he or any of the other similarly sized warriors behind him could even read it.
“Kuni Yuzumi will not be greeting you, Isawa-san,” the Crab samurai said after several long moments. “The master of the Kuni family felt your request better observed by another. When you did not arrive on time, that man requested that we locate you.”
Isawa Takeshi took a few long moments to study the Crab. They lacked the refined elegance he was used to in the northern part of the Empire, and did not seem to display even the martial civility of the Lion. They were unkempt, bearded, and some even let their hair fall disgracefully to their shoulders. If the blasted landscape around him weren’t enough to tell him how far from home he really was, certainly these strange samurai would be. “Forgive me, Hida-sama, but some rather large political favors were exchanged for this meeting. I need to see Kuni Yuzumi-sama as part of my research. Surely only she-”
“Kuni Yuzumi-dono,” the lead Crab interrupted, “has seen fit to have one of her… experts deal with your request. No matter the favor you spent, Isawa-san, there are other demands on a daimyo’s time.”
“I… see,” Takeshi said, reluctantly. “And who might you be taking me to, Hida-sama?”
“The only man in the Crab Clan insane enough to listen to you. You’re going to talk to mad old Kuni Mokuna.”
One Month Later
Isawa Takeshi felt his bones crack as he struggled underneath the weight of the massive Jade boulder, atop which sat the man who had tormented him for the better part of a month. Kuni Mokuna was nothing like Takeshi had expected; instead of a hearty defender of the Empire, Mokuna was old, withered, and ancient. Certainly a man well past the age he should have retired, Mokuna’s hair was a stark gray-white, and it fell about him in unkempt and uncared for clumps. He walked with the aid of a gnarled stick, riven through with veins of Jade, a stick that was currently beating Takeshi about his arms and legs.
“Keep it up, young one!” he barked in a shrill voice. “Keep it up and we’ll make a Kuni of you yet!”
“I… did not… come here… to be tested… like this…” Takeshi said through gritted teeth. Sweat poured off of him, drenching his clothes, and he could feel the heat of the nearby fire as the flames nearly reached his face. “I only… want to know… about…”
“Yes, yes, yes, the same story for thirty days,” Mokuna said. “‘Oh please Kuni-sama, tell me about the forbidden magics. Tell me about the thirteen Black Scrolls!’” The old man laughed, a harsh wheeze of a sound. “Wanting a thing doesn’t make it happen, Isawa Takeshi. Wanting a thing, in fact, is the surest way to your doom!”
“I… can’t…” Takeshi gritted, the stone and the old man seeming heavier than they had moments ago. For thirty days, Mokuna tested Takeshi. It began as riddles and research, before moving into more esoteric methods. Today’s challenge was simple: hold a boulder of jade on his back for an hour without collapsing. Of course, the old man didn’t say that he’d surround the young priest with a circle of fire before hopping on top of the boulder himself. Like many of the strange Mokuna’s challenges, it was one Takeshi knew he could not succeed at. “I… can’t… do what… you ask... “
“And this is why you will fail, Takeshi!” the old Kuni shouted, his walking stick bounding off of Takeshi’s head with a sharp crack. “A tale as old as the Empire is yours. A man seeking forbidden knowledge for what he sees are the right reasons. A man doomed to fall to darkness. That is all you are, is it not? Just another power hungry priest in orange robes.” Takeshi fell to one knee. The weight of the stone and the man seemed unbearable. The Phoenix thought, then, of why he came to the damned lands of the Kuni in the first place. He thought of his father’s distant sadness, of his mother’s remorse. His sister’s relief at being called away from the family to serve in the Jade Legions, a small escape from a lifetime of ignominy. He thought of the taunts he’d endured at the Isawa school, as all the young children would say with words what their elders would only say with their disapproving eyes. Traitor. Bloodspeaker. Tainted. Forsaken.
He planted his feet as he thought of the being that had first appeared to him at just four summers old. Her hair raven-dark, broken only by a golden headband and an orange feather. Flowing robes of an immaculate quality no one in his family had ever worn. Until he knew the truth he’d called her a friend… but the truth was that she couldn’t know him. She was a mirage, a familiar form for an unknowable kami of the Air. A visage that would not speak, but in its appearance told the story of his family. Isawa Uona, the Master of Air that fell. The Master of Air that broke the oldest oaths of the Phoenix and in so doing helped bring the Dark Kami to Rokugan.
The woman who had opened a Black Scroll, and in so doing damned herself and her family. A woman who could not even cleanse the shame of her own action, dying to the tainted Master of Fire all those years ago. Centuries later, her shame had damned Takeshi’s family, just for the crime of sharing her blood.
He rose slowly, shakily, as another memory came to him. His youngest brother, Ashitaka. Gifted in ways neither he nor his sister nor either of his parents are. Ashitaka, a boy with a future in the Phoenix. Ashitaka, a boy who could shape the clan if only he had the chance.
Isawa Takeshi stood, and said nothing for a long while. Kuni Mokuna felt the change in the boy’s stance. “Oh? And what is this, Isawa Takeshi? What do you know now?”
“I… am not here… for power. I… am not… here to… make.. the same mistakes… as my ancestors. I… am here.. because I… can’t be anywhere else.”
“And just why is it,” the old Witch Hunter said, “that you want the Black Scrolls of Fu Leng?”
“I… don’t want them. I…,” Takeshi could hardly find the words he knew to be appropriate, and only then did the truth of it find him. “I want… to destroy them. I want… my family… my line… freed from their curse.”
“Oh ho ho!” the Kuni said. “Finally, the truth out of you. That only took a month!” Despite his age, the Kuni hopped off of the boulder effortlessly. I one motion, with a wide swing of his stick, he doused the flames with dirt and tipped the boulder off of Takeshi’s back. Takeshi nearly fell as the weight was suddenly lifted. “Air shugenja, kami save me, take so long to get to the point.”
Stunned, Takeshi took a moment to still his breathing. A breeze came through, cooling him. “What… what is next, Kuni-sama?”
“Oh ho ho, now I will teach you what you want to know,” Mokuna said simply, a smile showing his cracked and broken teeth. “And should it take you, I will kill you myself.”