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The Path of Earth: The Eternal Struggle
Fire broke the silence with the obvious. “He is an abomination to nature.”
“He was born with the touch of Jigoku,” Earth replied. “The evil seed has grown within his soul, yet he has not succumbed to its effects. He is among the last of those who bear the burdens of the Shadowlands against his will.”
“The touch of Jigoku is absolute,” Fire said firmly. “Mortals cannot overcome its evil. You waste your blessing on one who is doomed to fail.”
The others called it the Riddle, yet the playful title had never made sense to him. The conversation began with a great challenge, as they always did. Asako Rikate sat with his legs folded under him and stretched out to the kami that surrounded all things. He closed his eyes and slowed his breathing. These rituals helped soothe his mind and helped him connect with the elements. His companions that learned the Henshin ways with him had always described speaking to the kami as a flow of friendly riddling, yet it had never been so easy for him. The elements seemed to treat him with a small degree of wariness.
The difficulty had never discouraged him. This was his Path in life, and he would follow it despite the difficulties in his way.
The meditation began to settle in the core of his very being. His breathing slowed to a crawl, and his mind became empty of all stray thoughts. What remained were the thoughts of supplication. The moments of silent peace stretched out without any response from the nearby kami. An hour passed.
Finally, a single kami of Earth raised its attention and spoke to him. It was deliberate and curt, as Earth kami tended to be. Speak, human-
Rikate could not suppress a quick grin of triumph. “I am Asako Rikate and I am your humble servant.”
The Earth did not respond. Finally, its response rumbled through his mind. You are different from the others-
This, too, was the usual continuation of the conversation. “Each human is distinct from all others, esteemed kami. I have dedicated my life to your service.”
The Earth kami seemed to mull over the response. You are flawed-
Rikate blinked. This was a new wrinkle in the initial stages of the conversation. “I am only mortal, but I am eager to change to better venerate you.”
Impossible, it is beyond your reach-
A bead of sweat trickled over his eye. He hurriedly wiped it away and focused again on the conversation. “Please, show me my failings,” he begged. “I would know my own faults so that I may address them.”
There was another pause of heavy deliberation. Very well-
Power surged all around him as the Earth kami called forth others of its ilk. Rikate could barely see the convergence of power as it formed intricate patterns around him. He was no shugenja; he could not importune the kami, nor could he see the weaves of spellcraft around him. Still, this feeling was unmistakable. The kami of the Earth were forming a spell directly on him. He unclenched his hands and spread them in front of him.
The power suddenly rushed into him with a flash of green light. It flowed over him and through him. He could feel the purity of the beam as a flame all around him. It grew more intense by each growing moment. It was unrelenting, painfully digging into his soul with merciless determination. He had never felt such intense pain in his life.
He screamed and blacked out.
He did not know if minutes or hours passed before he regained consciousness, but the same Earth kami patiently waited for him.
You are impure-
And it was gone.
He could not organize his thoughts despite all the years of intense training. They bounced around every corner of his mind with no rhyme or sense. He welcomed the chaos, for once. He had learned too much from the wise Earth kami for him to enter meditation. Viewed from this different light, past events suddenly made sense.
He was corrupted by the Shadowlands Taint. The power of Jade had scorched him. He had never been subject to the spell before, as no one had even suspected the possibility that he could be affected. He had never ventured out of his homeland and his parents had never spoken of the possibility. It seemed an important distinction to make to a child, that his life could be overthrown by the insidious truth.
Now that he had become aware of his condition, he could hear the tempting whispers of the Shadowlands in the back of his mind. Endless power, it promised. Eternal knowledge. No one needs to know, and your weakness will become your strength.
He tried to ignore the voice. Two questions emerged from the self-pity and asserted itself at the forefront of his thoughts. ‘What have I become? What do I do now?’ The kami would always view him with suspicion, no matter how much dedication he placed into the Henshin arts. His entire life had no purpose.
Rikate shook his head. This was not the time to despair.
He closed his eyes and began to enter the state of meditation. In the void the answers came to him, as they always did. Perhaps it was his childhood stubbornness rearing its head, or perhaps it was his years of training as a monk. It did not matter.
Perhaps he was Shadowlands Tainted, and perhaps he had always been corrupted from his birth. It did not matter. He was still Asako Rikate, monk of the Phoenix Clan. He would not give in. He would continue to learn the Henshin arts and meditation techniques that might help defend his soul. He would not give the Shadowlands a foothold into the mortal realm through him.
And before the Shadowlands conquered his soul, he would surrender himself to the Inquisitors for judgment. It was unavoidable, but he would serve the will of Tengoku for as long as he had strength to resist.
A wave of strength flooded him as he came to his decision. The never-ending dark whispers in the back of his mind stopped, and the tiny aches across his body faded away.
His debilitating sense of isolation faded for the first time since his rude awakening.