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A rain poured down, soaking Hiroru to the bone. The wind was cold, and the sun hid behind thick, gray clouds. He glanced at his companion, racing beside him on a sturdy brown pony. Ginawa's face was haggard, lined with care and drink.

Hiroru tugged on hi horse's reins. "We camp here! It'll be dark soon, and my horse is tired." He had visited these fields before, and it was by no mistake he had chosen this copse of trees. Beneath a wide oak, a small clearing remained relatively dry, and the horses shook themselves gratefully.

Ginawa spat upon the ground, a brown stain on the gray rock. Without answering, he turned his steed into the nearest copse of trees, seeking the shelter of their branches.

"What are we doing here, Lion?" The word was a sneer as Ginawa dismounted, keeping his hand on the blood-red saya at his side. "This is Dragon territory. We stay here, we're likely to be found by Hitomi's men."

"The Dragon Champion?" Hiroru cursed, crouching beneath the sheltering boughs of a sturdy oak. "She has more to concern her than us, old friend." A silent pause, then a whispered, "Much more..."

Ginawa roared, and the sound startled the horses, making them rear and pull away. "I'm tired of games, Hiroru!"

"Games?"

"You said we came here to find the ninja! Well?" Ginawa's hand reached for the hilt of his sword. "Where is the ninja?"

As he spoke, Hiroru drew himself to his feet, his pure white eyes seeking something in the darkness. "I brought us here, hoping to find an ally. A woman with great knowledge of the darkness, Akodo. If she cannot help us, then the Emperor is truly lost."

"A woman?" You've lost your mind. First the Crane and now..."

"Shh..." Hiroru gestured suddenly. "she comes."

"Who? bah!" Ginawa dropped to the ground, squatting and peering up through the rain. "Useless. This is all useless."

"She is coming." Hiroru said again, this time more loudly. "get up, you fool."

The wind storm rocked the trees, and leaves fell to the ground in brown, wet clumps. The bitter cold cut through their clothing, sharp tongues of ice.

"You wanted to see my ally, Ginawa-san." Hiroru's voice spoke of respect and a strange awe that Ginawa had never seen in his arrogant friend. Ginawa looked up, annoyed, and saw movement in the trees. The darkness was intense, unreal, and for a moment, the clouds parted and Ginawa caught a glimpse of starlight.

A woman stepped into the clearing. The samurai leapt to his feet, drawing his sword in an instant, the blade humming with eagerness.

"What is she?" Ginawa hissed, staring.

The woman was dressed in simple robes, her face clear and young. Despite the fierce storm and thick clouds of rain, she seemed unharmed by the elements, and her long black hair hung undisturbed be the reckless wind. She turned to face the ronin, calm and peaceful, and he stepped back, unsure.

Her eyes were filled with the light of a thousand stars.

"Kaede..." the ninja whispered.

"Be at peace, Lion." She raised one hand, "For I cannot stay long. The Oracle...still calls. I have not learned all I must." Her head turned to the side, listening to voices in the wind. "I know what you are looking for. There is a man, a Dragon-man, whom you must seek. One who knows much of the shadow-walkers. He alone has the answers you must find. He alone can tell you of those who hold the Emperor in their grasp..."

"Then Toturi isn't dead?" Ginawa interrupted.

"No, not dead." She whispered, but her voice was as loud as thunder. "Though he may soon wish to be."

"His name. Kaede...his name." Hiroru's stepped closer, as her voice began to fade. "How will we know this man?"

As she spoke, her body began turning to stars,drifting first one, then many, and then vanishing into the wind. "Know him by his face..."

"His face?"

"His face has not yet vanished..."

And with that, and a thundered warning from the storm, she was gone...

* * *

It has been six months since the Mantis claimed Beiden Pass, daring the Empire to shake them from their mountain fortress. They have built a palace upon the tall slopes of the canyon, and their armies prepare to invade the lands of the Matsu. 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. 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.

But the battles do not go well. The Crane, allying themselves with the Unicorn, desperately wage war against Yoritomo, seeking to destroy his hold on Beiden pass. A group of battle-Maidens, leaderless without Kamoko, race to the north, hoping to meet with the Mantis to the north of the pass, and prevent them from allying with the Lion.

Daidoji Uji, leader of the Daidoji troops, has disobeyed his lord, and marched northward, to engage the Mantis reinforcements before they can march past Otosan Uchi. Only the need to protect the city of the Emperor gives him the strength to complete his mission - knowing that should he fail, his life will be forfeit.

In the court, the Chancellor desperately tries to restore order, while his advisors capitalize on any weakness or error. From the Dragon Mountains, the first ambassadors come, telling tales of genocide by the Naga, and speaking claims of peace. Hitomi sends a message of goodwill and an offer of brotherhood to all who wish to join her quest for enlightenment.

Yet, to the south, the lion march toward Crab lands, turning their massive armies toward the 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 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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Togashi will return!