The conclusion of our exciting fiction depicting the events of the Dead of Winter CCG expansion!
The Dead of Winter, Part 2
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
The front gates were not the only entrance into the Imperial Palace. There were at least a dozen others, perhaps more. If anyone knew the full number, they had never bothered to inform the guards who were graced with the honor of serving sentry duty on the primary entrance. Regardless, the simple truth was that the majority of those who had the privilege of entering the palace never used any other point of entry; the others were primarily for those who lived or served within the palace. As a member of the Seppun Guardsmen, Seppun Atoru was privileged to know of three entrances, two of which were semi-concealed and restricted for use by the Seppun, the Empress’ Guard, and the yojimbo of various high-ranking members of the Emperor’s Chosen. He considered himself fortunate to have been blessed with such an honor, and lived each day with the intent of proving himself worthy.
The shout from his normally silent fellow sentry drew his attention instantly from the approach vectors that he normally observed without interruption. A man was running toward the palace, as fast as he possibly could. Atoru’s instincts took over instantly, and his weapon was in his hand even as the thought occurred to him. He took several steps forward even as his comrade stepped backwards to protect the door proper from any secondary attack for which this might be a distraction. “Stop!” Atoru commanded, his voice heavy with authority. “Come no closer or you will be stopped!”
The man halted half a dozen paces from Atoru. “We must act immediately! The Empress is in grave danger!”
The words filled Atoru with cold dread, but he did not shift his attention away from the man. “Stand back and show me your weapons,” he ordered. “Show me your authorization. Attempting to enter the palace without proper authorization is forbidden.”
The man stopped and looked down at his drab robes, almost surprised at his appearance. He quickly withdrew two items from his obi. One was a mask that he placed over his face, and the other was a symbol of authority, a chop clearly crafted by the Imperial families’ master craftsmen.
“Oh,” Atoru said flatly. “I… I apologize, my lord.”
“What is it lord Norachai-sama requires,” a smooth voice said from behind him.
Atoru turned to see the resplendent armor of Shiba Erena, first among the Empress’ Guard, standing shoulder to shoulder with his fellow sentry. “He says there…”
“The palace has either been penetrated or will be shortly,” Bayushi Norachai said at once. “There are gaijin in the Imperial City, and I believe they mean to kill the Empress!”
Erena’s gaze was steel. “Come with me.”
* * * * *
Moshi Kinyo hung from the ropes that hung all across the sails of the Ivory Vision. The ship was one of the few selected from the so-called Fourth Storm that had been put to heavy use by Kalani-sama and his expedition. So far, she had been part of three separate voyages aboard the ship: two into the deep ocean, far from shore, and one back to the capital city where the lords of the Ivory Kingdoms had once ruled. The ocean voyages had been an overwhelming success, the ship traveling farther from land than any Mantis vessel had ever dared without any significant difficulty. The trip back to the capital city had simply been depressing.
The ship was en route for its third deep sea voyage. Kinyo, and most likely several other members of the crew, was of the opinion that no further testing was required. It was obvious that the Ivory Vision was a shipwright’s masterpiece. Still, Kalani appeared to be the cautious sort, and Kinyo did not mind. A storm was brewing, after all.
Kinyo leapt from rope to rope, enjoying the feeling of that fleeting moment of being one with the winds, of hanging in the void between the two perches. Then she was on the ropes once again, and the sensation was gone. The winds from the approaching storm pushed against her, and she felt dampness that was not merely spray, but the first raindrops. Kinyo smiled and laughed. She felt the Thunder in her spirit soar in its own environment.
She cried out in surprise and discomfort, one hand going to her head instantly. She recognized the sensation. She had felt it once before, when the name of someone called Kamarou had forced itself into her mind like a sickness. It had lasted only a short time, but she had wondered if it was some sort of attack, or perhaps a signal that she had become unhinged by the ritual that bonded her soul with that of the Thunder Dragon.
Kinyo groaned and rubbed her temple, the throbbing behind her eyes almost unbearable. She felt the familiar presence. It was Kamarou again. But who was it? Some gaijin sorcerer attacking from concealment to gain vengeance for the Mantis’ presence here? Or something else altogether.
Agasha. Agasha Kamarou.
Kinyo blinked in surprise despite the pain. A Phoenix?
Reaching through the Thunder. Reaching across the world. Survival? Prosperity?
They were not words, not really. It was more of an impression, a feeling. It was as if she could sense what Agasha Kamarou was thinking, of what she sought to know from the Mantis Clan. Kinyo was not sure what it meant. “We are well,” she said through clenched teeth. “We have secured our position.”
Relief. Gratitude. Curiosity.
Kinyo was unsure how to express herself to the distant priestess. She focused on certain feelings, certain thoughts. Abandoned. Desolate. She thought for a moment, then with a certain sense of pride and arrogance, added: Claimed.
Amazement. Concern. Curiosity.
Kinyo moaned again and shook her head. There was wetness at her nose and ears that had nothing to do with the rain, and she felt weak. She struggled to hold onto the ropes. Rest, she willed. No more.
And then the presence in her mind was gone. “Captain!” Kinyo shouted, her voice lacking its characteristic strength. “Captain, we must return to shore immediately! I must speak with Kalani-sama! It is a matter of great urgency!”
* * * * *
Erena and Norachai ran through the palace corridors, heedless of the gasps and bewildered looks that they drew. “Sohei?” she asked.
“There have been bodies discovered in the snow outside the city,” Norachai said. “Nearly two dozen, scattered in three different groups. All stripped of their warrior’s garb. It is the perfect attire to conceal every aspect of an individual’s identity, and who looks twice at a monk?”
“Two dozen,” Erena said. “How could they circumvent the wards that prevent those who wish harm upon the Empress entry into the castle?”
“It is not well known, but the willingly sacrificed life’s blood of a follower of Fu Leng can negate such wards and allow entry into the palace. I believe it is how Rosoku was assassinated some years ago, and I believe that a follower of the Destroyer could accomplish the same thing.”
“This is dire news,” Erena said. She slowed slightly as she passed by one of the larger sub-chambers. “Empress’ Guard!” she shouted. “To me!”
Two and a woman emerged instantly. “What is your command?” Kitsuki Yodo asked.
“Infiltrators. The Empress must be protected at all costs.”
“Have you seen any sohei in the palace?” Norachai demanded.
“Sohei?” the ronin Gahseng asked. “I saw a quartet earlier today, trailing in the wake of the Mantis delegation.”
Tsuruchi Sanjo shook his head. “There are no sohei among the Mantis delegation, as far as I am aware.”
“Damnation!” Norachai spat. “We must hurry!”
* * * * *
Agasha Kamarou’s eyes fluttered and opened. She groaned and placed a hand on her head, swaying badly and lurching over. She would have fallen from the lotus position to be completely prone if Asako Bairei had not caught her. “Easy, young one,” he said quietly. “Take a moment and regain your balance.” His face was etched with concern as he handed her a slip of cloth. “The ritual is more taxing on those who conduct it than I had anticipated.” He nodded to the others in the room. “Leave us,” he said softly. “Make a complete account of everything you have seen here.”
“Do you wish us to attempt to replicate Kamarou’s accomplishment?” one of the younger acolytes asked eagerly.
Bairei glanced again at Kamarou. “Not yet,” he said. “Not until we know more. Go now.”
The others departed with quick bows, and Kamarou stared absently at the cloth Bairei had given her. Then she realized that her nose was bleeding, and bleeding badly. She blotted at her face with the cloth, which came away bright and wet. “I… I am alright, my lord.”
“I suspect perhaps not,” Bairei said. “You need rest. I will escort you to your chambers. Servants will bring you some broth and tea.”
“Thank you, my lord,” Kamarou sighed. “Perhaps I could do with a bit of rest.”
The two walked silently for a moment, Kamarou leaning heavily on the Master of Water despite herself. “Tell me of your mother,” Bairei said. “You are not Mikoto’s granddaughter, but what of your mother? What manner of woman was she?”
“A shugenja of considerable talent despite that she never gained a prestigious appointment,” Kamarou said, pride evident in her voice. “She preferred to serve in a humble setting to seeking glory or fame. She was a beautiful woman, courted often after my father’s death.”
“Young to the end, eh?” Bairei asked.
“Very much so,” Kamarou said. “Why do you ask, my lord?”
Bairei stared at the streak of grey that now shot through the young woman’s hair. A streak that had not been there a few hours before. “Simple curiosity, my dear. Nothing more.”
* * * * *
The throne room descended into madness.
Norachai, Erena, and her guards arrived in the throne room to discover that the Winter Court was in full session. There were more than a hundred people in the room, milling and talking to one another about all manner of things that were surely of grave importance, but to Erena it all seemed meaningless in that instant. Her heart was thrumming in her chest like a hummingbird and she struggled to control it. She turned to the other guards. “This chamber must be cleared at once,” she said quietly. “Have the Seppun secure all the exits. Norachai-sama and I will speak to the Chancellor.” She nodded to the older man and he began making his way swiftly through the room toward the Empress’ dais.
The Chancellor looked up from the scroll he was reviewing as they approached, and a genuine smile crossed his features, or at least it appeared to from what they could see with his mask. “Norachai-san,” he said warmly. “It is good to see you.”
“Hisoka-sama, there is a threat to the Empress,” Norachai said without preamble. “We must clear this room at once.”
Hisoka’s eyes flitted briefly to Erena, where he saw Norachai’s urgency reflected. “I beg your pardon, friends,” he said loudly, drawing the chamber’s attention at once. “There is a matter of some grave urgency that requires the Empress’ attention. I will ask you to retire to the gardens for a moment, that the Empress may give audience to the captain of her guard and the Protector of the Imperial City. Please proceed to the gardens, where I have arranged for a moment’s entertainment.”
There was some surprise among the attendants, and Erena saw the Voice of the Empress glance to the Divine One questioningly, as did the Imperial Consort and the Imperial Advisor who sat beside the two atop the dais. The crowd began dispersing out of the chamber, but they were not moving fast enough. Erena made eye contact with the two guards standing at post at the foot of the dais, Akodo Kurogane and Ikoma Tobikuma, giving them the sense of urgency that they required without speaking a word. Both men nodded and tightened their placement slightly, screening those on the dais from everyone else as much as was possible without causing undo alarm.
Erena saw the Emerald Champion making his way through the crowd toward her, his expression seeming slightly annoyed.
Then the screaming started.
The first scream was from a Crane courtier that Erena had never spoken to, and did not know her name. The woman was standing immediately in front of a sohei who threw off her robes to reveal a terrible sight beneath: the gaijin assassin was a woman, stripped almost bare save for some sort of wrapping around her waist and below. The woman’s skin was covered in a terrible assortment of brands and tattoos, many of which were bleeding, and the sight was simply overwhelming to the delicate senses of any cultured courtier. “Kali-ma!” the assassin screamed, her voice guttural and thick. She held a strange curved dagger in each hand.
A ripple of panic coursed through the room like an earthquake. “Get the Empress to safety!” Erena commanded, surging toward the assassin.
“Kali-ma!” the assassin repeated, and Erena’s heart sank when she heard the shout echoed at least a half-dozen times throughout the chamber. The first assassin slit the throat of the Crane woman standing deadlocked before her, then executed two more in the seconds it took Erena to reach her. The gaijin hurled one of her knives toward the charging captain, slicing through the air with unerring accuracy, but Erena batted it aside with the tsuba of her blade almost without conscious thought. It was better that way, Erena reflected in some absent part of her mind that still had the capacity for casual thought. If she had been given seconds to consider it, she would likely have been unable to consciously deflect such a blow.
The assassin feinted left to draw Erena’s guard away, then stabbed right, the tip of the blade ascending at an angle to pierce first her armor and then her heart, but Erena was not swayed by the gesture. She parried the strike away and plunged her blade deep into the gaijin’s abdomen, reflecting only at the last moment that she desperately hoped these devils did not have the fire in their souls that the Dark Oracle’s Yobanjin raiders on the northern front did. But no, the assassin merely died; there was no eruption of unholy fire.
For that, Erena offered a quick prayer, then sprinted toward the Empress’ dais. It was so short a distance away, but it seemed as if it were miles.
Bayushi Hisoka stared in mute horror at what unfolded in the chamber, his chamber, before his very eyes. At least ten gaijin had appeared from among the attendants, and Hisoka recalled the moment earlier in the day when he had wondered at the number of sohei in attendance today. He cursed himself for a fool and pondered whether or not his duties as Chancellor had dulled his instincts in some manner. He had only a moment to wonder, however, because one of the assassins was coming directly at him. Of course, he thought. Strike at the Empress by striking at her Chosen. It was a crude psychological tactic, but an effective one.
“Kali-ma!” his murderer screamed, the man’s voice hoarse, spittle spraying from his lips. Hisoka saw his own image reflected in the steel of the blade that rose to kill him, strangely hypnotized and rooted to the spot. Was it some power of his assassin?
Several inches of red steel sprouted from the gaijin’s chest suddenly, and he stopped, looking down at the blade protruding from his flesh with just as much confusion as Hisoka seemed to be feeling. “Kali-ma,” he whispered, and collapsed in the floor.
“Come, Chancellor,” Bayushi Hirose said in his characteristic whisper. “We must get you to safety!”
“See to the Empress,” Hisoka said at once. “My life means nothing if hers is in danger.”
The dais where the Empress sat was besieged. A half dozen gaijin assassins attempted to swarm it, screaming the name of their goddess or occasional threats to the life of the Divine One in thickly accented Rokugani. The Empress herself stood and retreated, her features as serene as ever. Kurogane and Tobikuma fought ferociously, making Erena proud. She felt the sting of tears in her eyes as she saw Kurogane pierced by multiple weapons, only to throw himself onto his enemies to pin their blades and halt their progress. She saw another assassin’s blade take one of Tobikuma’s eyes, and his howl of rage and pain as he continued to fight without stopping.
She would not reach the dais in time.
The Imperial Consort, Setai, drew his wakizashi and leapt upon his wife’s would-be assassins with an almost feral snarl of rage. To her amazement, the Imperial Advisor shouted something she could not understand, his voice shaking and full of both anger and unabashed fear, and leapt atop one of the assassins from behind, clawing at his face and making inarticulate sounds of horror while trying to avoid the gaijin’s steel.
Erena reached the dais. Gahseng was at her side. They began cutting a path through the assassins, but more attacked their flanks, trying to stop them from reaching to the top. Erena called out in outrage that they would stymie her fulfillment of her duty in such a manner, furious that her duty would be so thwarted. “Who dares?” she heard a voice of pure indignation call out, and suddenly Togashi Satsu, Voice of the Empress, was among them.
Satsu was like a hurricane unleashed within the chamber. His speed, his strength, took Erena’s breath away. The assassins, deft of motion and blade, were as stone compared to him. He broke their weapons, shattered their bodies, turned them away with his bare hands in such a manner that they could surely never rise again. His every motion imparted such power and strength that none could stand against him, and in only a handful of seconds, the assassins at the dais were defeated.
There was a flurry of motion in the corner of Erena’s eye, and she saw a pair of gaijin, perhaps the last two, hurling their weapons toward the Empress. She did not have time to think, she merely acted. She threw her body between the assassins and the Empress, seeking to stop their steel with the only defense she truly had. There was a sharp sense of impact, and then she was on the ground, the breath driven from her body and pain shooting through her torso.
“Captain!” Gahseng shouted. “Captain, are you alright?”
“Empress,” Erena wheezed, “Secure the Empress!”
“The others have taken the Empress and the Voice from the room,” Gahseng said. “Can you stand?”
Erena looked down and was surprised to see that there were no blades lodged in her chest. She coughed and looked about in confusion. Lying next to her was Bayushi Norachai, who had leapt in front of her even as she leapt in front of the Empress. Three blades jutted up from his body, blossoms of red growing around each one. “You deserve to live another day,” he said softly, and smiled.
“Are the gaijin dead?” Erena asked Gahseng.
“Then get a priest. This man is badly injured,” she commanded. “Now!”
* * * * *
The majority of attendees of the Empress’ Winter Court were in the palace gardens. Some were weeping. Others appeared to be in shock over what had happened, and still others were unsure what to do or say. Many said nothing. It was perhaps the quietest assemblage of Winter Court attendees that the Empire had ever known.
One set of doors swept open suddenly, drawing gasps of fear from some of those still traumatized by the experience. It was not gaijin assassins who emerged from the doors, however, but rather the Emerald Champion and half a dozen of his heavy guard. He surveyed the group carefully. “The threat is at an end,” he said solemnly. “The Empress’ Guard and others have slain the assassins. None survived, and although there were grave losses, the Empress was not harmed.”
Many sighed in relief. One or two sobbed.
“How these foreign demons gained entrance into the palace is as yet unknown,” Shosuro Jimen continued. “That matter will be investigated and the truth will be discovered. It is my hope and trust that no denizen of the Empire assisted the assassins in gaining entrance. Should my trust be broken, the families of all responsible parties will be put to death to ensure that no treacherous bloodlines will endure within Rokugan.” He paused for effect. “Until such time as my agents can confirm the process by which the palace was breached, we must consider it an unsafe environment. For that purpose, I am cancelling the remainder of Winter Court effective immediately.”
At this there was a considerable murmur throughout the crowd but Jimen held his hand up. “If I cannot guarantee the security of the Empress, much less that of her Chosen or her guests, then I will not take the risk. Already members of the Empress’ Guard have been killed, and the Protector of the Imperial City is wounded and may soon die. You have two additional months of time to spend attending to your own affairs rather than those of court. I suggest you make use of them.”
The Emerald Champion turned and left, leaving the members of the Winter Court to whisper among themselves at the unprecedented nature of his proclamation.
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