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Nearly five hundred years ago . . .

"There Is No Stay of Execution. Your son's offense is inexcusable. For questioning my judgment, you will join him. Guards"--the Imperial Hantei motioned lazily--"remove the Crane Champion's head."

The years are unimportant. Only the Eternal Sun and Moon circling in the sky above the Empire are important. Only the Hantei, whose word is law, is above all else. My duty is to serve.

My name is Hida Tsuneo, and I am Champion of the Crab. I stand now upon the wall at my Hantei's side, bowing before him as he delivers immortal words.

I remember his voice from the past: "Never before, Mother, have you so disappointed me." Hantei XVI was a tall, slender man with shoulders too wide for his wiry frame. His beak-like nose hovered over a thin moustache and beard delicately shaped by a hundred courtesans who waited upon him. "Never before, Otomo-san, have you allowed me to catch you this way," he continued, running thin fingers through the folds of his golden kimono. "I had thought you more clever than this. After all, did you not give birth to me?"

"And four others." The hiss came from between the woman's broken teeth. She turned her face from his to escape his glare and the foul stench that was his life. Blood trickled to the floor before the Hantei's throne. "Four . . . whom you killed."

"Yes, of course." The Hantei smiled almost soothingly, motioning to the Seppun guardsman to remove another finger from the courtier's hand.

She did not scream as it was done--only shivered. Blood streaked her white face-paint. A Scorpion's mask, I thought, fit for an Empress.

The guards backed away, and several of the assembled courtiers in the room seemed paler than before. I did not know why. This was not the first of the Imperial Hantei's "punishments" to his family members. The others had all died after similar treatment, killed for treasons both real and imagined. The Hantei had never allowed treason--not even treason of thought.

Even at that time, ten times ten Seppun corpses hung upon high stakes up and down Otosan Uchi's Imperial Road. Their crime had been to follow a man who did not respect them. The Emperor had ordered them to destroy every samurai in the Chokai province of the Mirumoto lands. But they failed, and they died. Two Mirumoto escaped to tell the tale.

Hantei continued, "You tried to poison me, Mother."

"I tried to save the Empire from you," she coughed, broken ribs jutting soft points through her elaborate kimono. This had been the first time her son had called her into his presence for more than three years. Her maids said that she had painted each golden sparrow on her kimono with a brush made of her own hair. Now, blood and spittle covered the sparrows, and her elderly bones were no more than broken wings. "I curse you, Hantei Okucheo, that you will suffer for each death you have caused and the Empire will never again bear your weight."

Hantei XVI smiled faintly. "Kill the dowager Empress, Tsuneo-san. She serves no further purpose."

I am a Crab. I do not question.

Otomo Kaoichihime looked up at me with weary eyes as I raised my sword.

"No, Tsumeo-san," Hantei murmured--a mere whisper as he straightened the hem of his robe, "with your hands. She deserves no better than the goblins you fight on the wall."

I felt her hair between my callused palms, felt the flesh twitch once as the skull began to crack.

She whispered to me before she died.

Her blood trailed from my fingers.

And now I am unclean. I remember the foul feeling of grease upon my hands when she fell to the floor, the thick paste that stained my clothes. I will never forget it--the Kami will not let me.

I died unclean.

The guards swarmed through the throne room and destroyed the Steel Chrysanthemum. Crane guards. Lion guards. Phoenix and Scorpion--and Seppun--guards. My Emperor was betrayed, destroyed. And I did not fight to save him.

I stood over his mother's brutalized corpse, my hands shaking. Ten times ten hundred samurai with empty eyes staring down from spikes, with flesh rotting on Seven Hundred Soldier Plain, with bodies that are rubble at the base of the Phoenix cliffs--they whisper to me in Jigoku.

I died in seconds.

It took the Emperor ten days.

Who did I fail: the Emperor or the Empire?

Now Toturi sits upon his throne of jade, but the throne room is the same. I remember each detail; I still see the blood of Kaoichihime staining her own sparrow-cloak. I see her bones spread across the floor.

Death did not change me. Jigoku did not change me. Returning from the grave in this new body has not changed me. I stand at my Emperor's side, and I still hear his commands. The magic of a powerful gate that led to the land of the dead--a gate now destroyed--has brought our rebirth into the Empire. We cannot return, save to die once more. I remember Kaoichihime's voice as I listen to Hantei.

"You will return the throne to me and to my lineage, Toturi-san, or I will cast you from it." His words are smooth, silk--but I remember the dagger thrust into his throat by his own son. "You will obey the commands of the Imperial Hantei."

"No," says the man on the Jade Throne. "I cannot return to you what the Fortunes and the Kami have given me. I will not betray their trust."

"Then you sentence your people to death," Hantei XVI purrs.

"If I give you the throne, I sentence the entire Empire to death. I have made my choice, and I will stand by it." Toturi is impassive. There sits an Emperor worthy of respect.

I only wish that I could join him.

Hantei does not bow as he leaves the audience chamber, but I remain long enough to lower my eyes before the man upon the throne. I believe he understands. I must obey my Emperor. If there is to be a battle, I will fight with every ounce of my being and turn the weight of my legions as Hantei XVI commands. But this war of spirits is not of my choosing.

This life is not of my choosing.

"Tsuneo," Toturi says, "why do you follow him?"

I look up, and I know my eyes betray my soul. "I have always followed him."

"This is a new Empire, Tsuneo. Return to your family. How can you abandon them?"

"I have served him for five hundred years," I whisper. "How can I not?"

Kaoichihime's whisper returns to me as I follow Hantei XVI across the golden plains, back to our troops in the distant south: "My curse on you, Tsuneo, is that you will follow him to death . . . and beyond."

Forgive me, Rokugan.

Forgive me.

The Span of a Generation has begun to pass, and the spirits set free through Oblivion's Gate have come to rest within the Empire. But they are not peaceful, malleable spirits whose only desire is to retire and spend their new lives pondering the meaning of death. Rather, they are memories of more violent times--times when they ruled the Empire and when Rokugan shook at their command.

At their head stands the reborn shade of Hantei XVI, called the Steel Chrysanthemum.

The most feared tyrant in the history of the Empire.

He leads an army of ancient spirits who died in wars long forgotten, who spilled their blood in feuds and dishonor, and of those who died for an Empire that no longer wants them. The Empire no longer needs them.

But they cannot forget.

The returned Hantei Emperor has challenged Toturi for the Jade Throne, sparking a war between the reborn and the living. Toturi has commanded that all spirits either join the monasteries or remove themselves from the Empire--the latter either by traveling to other lands or by leaping from the high cliffs of Otosan Uchi. Those who choose death return to Jigoku with full honor.

But from the lands of the Crab an army rises, made of the spirit samurai who refuse to allow Toturi to cast them out so soon after their rebirth. They march behind a fearsome general, Hida Tsuneo, who claims to be the Champion of the Crab. Some few of the living have joined his command, and even those who resist him respect his ability and his honor.

Six of the Seven Clans stand unified behind Toturi, their banners under his command. Only the Phoenix withdraw their troops: the spirits threaten them; Tsuneo's samurai have captured their children. Tsukune must choose: either she must betray Toturi, or the future of her clan will die.

The Spirit Wars rage throughout ten summers, culminating at the Battle of Drowned Honor, the Battle of Quiet Winds, and other fronts. Tsuneo is cunning and has spirits at his command with nothing to live for. If they fail, Toturi will force them to leave the Empire proper or return to death. They believe that they fight for the truth of the Hantei line, never seeing the insane gleam in the eyes of Hantei XVI.

They have destroyed the Asahina lands. The Unicorn have lost Shiro Iuchi. The spirits have forced the Lion, badly depleted in the Battle at Oblivion's Gate, to retreat to Beiden Pass, stand at the shoulder of Bayushi Yojiro's Scorpion, and prepare for one final battle. If they fail, Tsuneo will break through to Otosan Uchi and place a tyrant on the throne.

If they succeed, the Empire will change forever . . . .








 

 

 

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