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Around the Imperial Capital's Golden Gates, an army gathered. Its spires glinted, reflecting patterns onto purple and red banners. Its mon were fastened to intricate armor, laced in gleaming metal. Katanas were lifted, echoed by battle-kiai, as samurai prepared to charge.

Otosan Uchi, under siege.

The armies parted below the southern gate. Battle-trumpets blazed from the parapets. Toturi I, cold and stern, stepped past his chain of guards. Pampered in golden robes, he still moved with the catlike grace of a general, black eyes shining without pupils in the summer sun. His words, when he spoke, were smooth, ringing.

Empty.

He spoke of unity, of grace, and of the future, but the Unicorn were unmoved. Above them hovered the kami spirit of Shinjo, their maker, the Warrior of Ki-Rin. Beside her, the Phoenix Champion and the brown-skinned Scorpion general stood ready Their bushi held sword-hilts, poised for the command to charge.

"Do you see them, shukujo?" The term for a courtly lady fell upon the white-haired Crane's ears as an insult. "They prepare for war." The speaker, a beautiful. soft-voiced geisha, plaited ribbons into her jet-black hair with delicate ease.

A man rolling in fat lifted chopsticks to greasy lips and chuckled. "What do the kami know of war? They only know how to send in their samurai to die for their cause." The man wrapped the bowl of rice in a hand as wide as two of Shizue's, and the Crane storyteller shuddered at his smell. His words were also foul: this beast dared to question a samurai's right to die for a lord's honor? If it were true - in the Unicorn followed a kami, a child of the Sun and Moon - then how could they do wrong?

"Look. They negotiate." A thinner man, his left eye filled with scar tissue and pus, pointed a slim finger at the huge crystal globe near the center of the room. It stood as high as a bushi's helm, an eye of pure crystal. "The Emperor would placate them." he poked insultingly at the gleaming form of the airborne Kami in the globe's depths. "One arrow - one bold samurai could end this war."

"You're wrong." Politely, the geisha stood, bowing with grace and beauty. "You know that can never happen." She looked at the shining globe, her eyes reflecting the fantastic visions swirling within it. "And you're wrong about the Usurper, as well. He's stalling for time. I know that pose well."

"Very good, Kaota." Kage's thunderous voice rolled from his dais. The candles that surrounded him flickered, chilling Shizue.

Shizue sat restrained to a cushion at the bottom of the dais. She tried desperately to catch a glimpse into the globe, lowering her lashes so that they wouldn't see her looking, but the nine figures surrounded it, pondering its pictures and whispering.

For ten days, Shizue had been in darkness broken only by meager food and water. Then, here. This foul room. She surreptitiously studied the room's occupants. Nine people - ten, counting Kage. Each a master of deception; each planning some terrible thing. What were they?

A man wearing a turban and a cloak stepped past Shizue and placed his hand on the orb. He spoke softly in a foreign tongue, and the vision wavered, changed once more.

Kage glanced at Shizue, who quickly looked away.

"You were a fine one, dear." The voice, an older woman's, contained a casual cruelty. The woman's face was mature but unlined, her clothing bearing no mon or distinctive color. Her hand brushed Shizue's shoulder. "Still a child when we tortured you. A shame you were used for such..." - the woman glanced at Kage, her face hardening - "...personal reasons. A waste."

On the other side of the room, an old man cackled, pushing past those who hovered over the crystal. "Kami! The Kami! She orders the attack! They war!" The others moved closer, verifying his report. "The final Emperor," he cackled gleefully. "He is there!"

"Enough, old man." The voice was stronger than the rest... and familiar. "Do not speak of such things. Here." Despite herself, Shizue turned to look.

"Yokatsu...," she whispered.

"The final Emperor!" Again, the laughter. "The Final One!" The troops around the palace shivered into view in the orb - seven men in a pike-row, which narrowed to four, then three, then...

A woman's hand clamped onto Shizue's neck, forcing her head forward again, paralyzing her. Everything around Shizue began to fade; her head grew light, and the voices began to recede.

"But will he live?" the old buzzard crooned.

"Of course he will." It was Kage, walking back toward Shizue and the dais. "If he does not, he is not the one." He sat once more above Shizue and turned to the Crane's captor. "Enough, Chinoko. You'll break her." He sounded amused, bored, but the pressure on Shizue's neck eased, and bright spots flooded her vision.

"Something has happened." It was the man with one eye. "The sky is going dark. The armies are scattering. Look. The Sun..."

In the crystal, the palace dimmed and the sky over Otosan Uchi's fields turned blood-red. A howling wind rose, and even the hovering Kami reached for her sword. On the ground, Scorpion troops swarmed into the city, led by their powerful general. As the Sun fled the sky with a howl, the formations collapsed in fear and the armies fled in a sea of confusion.

"What is it?" The geisha whispered fearfully.

"By the Ancient Ones - the Sun is gone. Amaterasu has fled. And Onnotangu...."

Kage nodded, his fingers trailing though his thin, white beard. "Dead."

"How?" The geisha again, her eyes wide with horror, her hands clasped to the side of the glowing orb.

A Scorpion, silent until now, spoke at last. "The Shadow?" His voice was younger than the rest.

"No. Another. Hitomi." The fat man put down his bowl of rice. "The hand, the bones and the blood of the Moon for protection - she has done it!" he clapped pudgy hands, his flesh flapping.

"Do not rejoice yet, brother," Yokatsu whispered, touching the orb with a callused finger. "The Shadow only grows stronger from this. With no Moon to guard the night, the Shadow will grow."

"The Star has returned. How can we fight her and the Shadow as well?" Thickly accented, a new voice arose. Its owner wore a turban, which was proud and strange in the flickering light. "She is a goddess - creature greater than light." The Qolat's face twisted suddenly in hatred. "We must destroy her!"

"We won't have to!" the old man cackled. "She will destroy herself. She cannot fight the Shadow, but now she will try. Turn enemies towards enemies, and let them argue - so says our tao."

"That is why she was turned against the Emperor and the Shadow that puppets him. Yokatsu's words brimmed with bitterness and hatred. "That is why we led her to Otosan Uchi. They will destroy each other."

"And your apprentice, Master Kage?" The Scorpion's voice contained its hate well.

"He will return."

"You are so certain? No man has returned from the Valley of Shadows. No agent we have sent has come back from Volturnum." Yokatsu, this time.

"Hiroru is not any man'. He is a Lion - a true samurai, despite our best training. If anyone can return from the Shadow, it is he."

"And the prophecy?" The geisha spoke softly, hiding her words behind a fan. Kage ignored them and turned from the crystal.

"Enough. Return to your duties. The war is finished. The Shadow has won the battle... but Hitomi has captured the board. It will be enough." Kage's tone brooked no interference, and one by one, the Masters bowed and turned to go, casting lingering glances at the crystal as they faded into the darkness.

----------

Night has fallen upon the towns and villages of the Jade Empire, hiding shadows in the deeper shade of night. Once, Rokugan's fields and valleys knew peace. Once - but long ago....

In the Empire's last six months, upheavals have threatened stability and destroyed peace. Earthquakes, famine, and other devastation have shattered Rokugan, bringing fear. The Kitsu, once masters of the spirit world, have found their way barred by something that is destroying the souls of the dead, one by one. Blood calls to nothing, and the Kitsu Tombs are silent and darkened by restless and angry spirits, cut off from the peace of the Land of the Dead.

In the Naga forests, a new army has risen, one led by a legend. Hida Yakamo, whose life was destroyed in a terrible battle against the Shadowlands, has risen once more. He is not undead, nor tainted by his journey beyond death. Instead, he holds the mind of the Naga race within his soul, and his eyes speak of worlds beyond our own.

The Crab serve him. The Naga revere him as the new Shashakar. In some lands of the Empire, the peasants worship him as a new-born kami. His name is told through the courts of the jade Empire as if he were the Emperor himself, and children cry his name as a battle-kiai as they play at being bushi.

he leads the armies of the Lion and the Crab, striking out to the south from Hiruma castle, devastating the Shadowlands as they pass. But even the light of his jade hand cannot stop the invading Shadow. The Shadow slips past the armies into the courts of Otosan Uchi, and it tears at the Emperor's mind. In Otosan Uchi's fields, Shinjo's armies - of Scorpion, Phoenix, and Unicorn troops - gather. To the north, even the Mantis armies pause in their siege against Isawa lands, and the Crane sue for peace between the feuding Doji and Daidoji factions.

Outside of the Emperor's palace, Shinjo screams for revenge over her brother's death. Immortal and a kami, she has slept for seven hundred years, returning with little care for the interval that has passed... or how the Empire she once knew has changed. She fights only to see Toturi destroyed, and the Shadow, his ally, fights to see her fall.

As the armies of the Kami destroy Toturi's forces, screaming for the Emperor's surrender, Toturi steps to his balcony. Unafraid, he raises his hand and speaks, ignoring the bloodshed beneath his feet, the terror and fire in the city of the Jade Throne. "The law proclaims it, my blood demands it, and those who deny me betray their oaths to the Empire." With that, he lifts his hands to the heavens and faces the Sun Mother herself. "I am your Emperor."

As he speaks, the sky turns black, then blood-red. The Sun, burning in the distant heavens, grows weak and pale, and then the darkness swallows her whole. In the farthest south, two men enter a deserted city, determined to find the source of the Shadow.

To the north, in the Shrine of the Three Sisters, an obsidian sword's blow decides the course of the future.

One Moon; one Sun.

One destiny...



 

 

 

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