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Hidden Emperor 5

The shadows deepened around the throne of Jade, the pale moon glimmering from the smooth, carved forms of dragons and lions which decorated the chair. In the alcoves surrounding the throne room, chrysanthemums wilted, their pots empty of water, neglected by the heimin.

Footsteps, smooth and silent, across the polished wooden floor. A hushed sliding, and then another as the door closed again, and the room was empty once more.

The darkness choked sound, stole light and ruined her attempts at following the silent figure. The walls of the throne room were empty and foreboding in the darkness. Moments later, her hands found the catch behind the chrysanthemum, lifting the delicate wood and sliding aside the panel. A thin crack appeared. With a deliberate motion, Shizue stole through the hidden doorway. A cold breeze blew through her hair, but her trembling hand was not from the chill.

The soft swish of silk, ahead in the passage, a faint light, voices.

Danger.

"The first steps have been taken..." a whisper spoke. "...implication is clear..."

She had been following the traitor for days, waiting for a single slip. A single chance to find the truth. As Shizue listened, the light of the distant lantern flickered, making shadows move and dance. As she approached, the light dimmed, and the shadows pulled closer.

Laughter.

"The Unicorn fight even now, for our purposes," the voice smiled to its companion. "Though they do not know it, they serve us best of all."

"My Lord..." the second man spoke, and his soft kimono rustled as he moved. "The Mantis march upon Otosan Uchi, and each step Yoritomo makes is another crack in our guard. We may not remain undiscoved for long."

"Foolish boy," the Master's voice was dark, filled withm silken promises. "The Mantis are a puppet, ready to be swayed by bright gold. Show them the lands of the Phoenix, and their greed will lead them away. They have nothing we desire." He moved, the lantern swinging against his brown robes.

The spy's back straightened, as if struck by a stinging whip, and his head bowed. With a gentle tone, the man with the lantern continued, musing thought aloud as if speaking to the shadows themselves. "The Mantis will come, my friend, and when they do they will seek to place a new Emperor on the throne. And we will let them try."

"But there is other news, my Lord." The spy raised his head and his hand shifted unconciously to his daisho. "The Lion march on Crab lands and without a leader, the descendants of Hida will be crushed. If they fall ..."

"Excellent."

"My Lord?"

"Times have changed, my devoted friend. Armies march, and the Emperor has been lost. Soon, the shadows will have to speak." He turned and the man rose to his feet, bowing.

"Go now." The lantern swung away, and Shizue turned, hurrying down the corridor before her soft footfalls could give her away. She closed the panel behind her and glanced about the still empty chamber. The crow of a courtyard bird pierced the still air of the throne room, and the jade of the throne seemed dull and lifeless as the gray of dawn began to break the shadow of night. She had escaped.

As he heard the faint click of the hidden panel, the Master turned once more to his rising servant. "One more thing Taro-san." The knife slid easily between the folds of the soft kimono, piercing the flesh of the man's unprotected back. The lantern shook, light spinning crazily along the empty corridor, and a gasp of shock echoed into the shadows.

The monk's eyes, slowly emptying of life, hung to his Lord's as he slid to the ground. His knees buckled. A trickle of blood ran from his open lips as he choked, "Kage ... why?"

"Because child, you were not the one I wished to tell." He smiled down at the dead body until all life had fled its cold, questioning eyes. Then, with a soft smile, he lifted the shining lantern, the sharp threads of light illuminating his aristocratic features. He would not need the lantern any more.

Dawn had come.

It has been three months since the Unicorn have claimed Ryoko Owari, enforcing their law with military might. Since Toturi was lost from his Jade Throne, a year of chaos and confusion, the Great Clans rise to claim the throne, each fearing to lose their place to another. As the armies of the Unicorn ride to enforce the laws of the Empire, restless brigands plunder the roads and fields, destroying all they cannot carry away. The end of the Empire seems near, and only the bravery of two men can unravel the mystery behind the Emperor's disappearance. From the mountains of the Dragon to the bitter wastes of the Shadowlands, wars rage and armies march.

The Mantis, leading the combined armies of the Alliance, have taken Beiden Pass. Surrounded by Crane adn Unicorn forces to the south, their only hope is to march northward, through Lion territory, in an attempt to meet with their reinforcements on the beaches of the Emperor's city. Their leader, Yoritomo, has claimed the right to challenge for the Jade Throne, and the Champion of the Crane has replied to these bold words with open war.

The Chancellor desperately tries to restore order, while his advisors watch with eager eyes, to capitalize on any weakness or error. Only the skillful guidance of a Crane keeps the Imperial Court from tearing itself to bits over some imagined prize. Yet, promises and oaths carry a heavy price for those who are unwary. From the Dragon Mountains, the first ambassadors come, telling tales of genocide by teh Naga, and speaking claims of peace. Hitomi, their new champion, sends a message of goodwill and unity, and an offer of brotherhood to all who wish to join her in her quest for enlightenment.

Yet, to the south, the Lion march toward Crab lands, turning their massive armies toward teh lightly defended Kaiu Wall. Leaderless, the Crab struggle to raise the force to defend against an invasion, while their brothers slowly die in lost Hiruma Castle. The Crane and Mantis engage in bitter, bloody war on the fields of the empty Scorpion lands, and from the Phoenix no word comes. The Empire crumbles under the burden of anarchy, and the storm of war destroys the sun and leaves only a black sky. It is a time of shadows, treachery and war - and it is a time of heroes.




 

 

 

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