By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
Kyuden Bayushi, the Month of the Boar
Although the Winter Court of the Emperor was normally convened at least a month earlier, sometimes even longer, there was little in recent memory that could match the fanfare associated with the convening of the first Winter Court of the Divine Empress Iweko I. Her ascension to the throne only weeks behind her, the Empress had apparently instructed her Imperial Advisor to make all the arrangements on the day of her coronation, and Bayushi Hisoka had gladly complied. For all that the announcement of its location had come only days ago, it appeared as though the great palace of the Scorpion Clan had been in preparation for this event for months.
That was entirely possible, Kitsuki Taiko decided. The Scorpion were nothing if not thorough in the formulation of their plans. She would not be surprised if there were other, similar sights prepared throughout their lands, or if they had also spent a great deal of time preparing to travel to another clan’s lands to conduct their affairs at court with the expected zeal. The Scorpion and the Dragon had been allies for generations, but in particular the Kitsuki family had always had somewhat tense relationships with them, and Taiko had never found herself particularly well disposed toward them as a whole.
The comment fairly dripped with oily charm and not a little condescension, and yet for all that Taiko could not help but blush slightly. It was maddening, and she hated it, but it was unavoidable. “Of all the places I thought I would safe from you,” she said in a low voice, “I thought surely Winter Court was the best option.”
Kakita Hideo glided into the edge of her vision, emerging from behind a column. “I have not seen you for almost two months. I could not bear it any longer.” He flashed that accursed grin. “Say that you did not miss me, and surely my heart will be broken forever.”
Taiko shook her head. “It is good to see you,” she said. “I honestly did not expect to find you here, however.” She glanced around for a moment. “What of your… your…”
“My disgrace?” he finished for her. “Alleviated somewhat, but not entirely erased. We shall see what comes of that, I suppose.”
“Alleviated,” she repeated. “I am glad to hear of it. What happened?”
“After the unfortunate business in the forest, Kitsune Ryukan was kind enough to write a formal letter to my lord thanking me for my assistance during the troubled times.”
Taiko raised her eyebrows. “Improving relations between the Crane and the Fox would be an accomplishment of note for anyone. Surely that was sufficient for them to forgive your lack of decorum at the Emerald Championship?”
“Unfortunately no,” Hideo said. “Ryukan-sama also saw fit to offer a handful of choice insults to the clan in the process. The value of any diplomatic progress made as part of my presence there is… questionable. No, in spite of our best efforts, relations between the Crane and the Kitsune have always been poor.”
“I see,” Taiko said, frowning. “How is it you gained admittance to the Winter Court, then?”
“I have a patron. I am among her attendants.” His tone was strangely subdued, and showed none of his customary smarm. “I lead quite the blessed life, it seems.”
Taiko began to respond, but stopped as another Crane emerged into the small antechamber and cast about for a second before her gaze settled on the young man. “Hideo-san,” she said, her voice perfectly cool, “did you prepare the documents I requested?”
Hideo bowed. “I did, my lady. They await your approval in the office adjoining your chambers.”
“Very good,” she said. “See me after mid-day meal. There are messages I need delivered among the various delegations before court is convened in the morning.”
“Of course, Kensho-in-sama.”
Taiko struggled not to look at the glassy, stone-like hand that adorned Kakita Kensho-in’s hand. It was difficult, but fortunately the other woman turned and left with nothing more than a cursory nod to the young Dragon. “That is your patron?”
Taiko shuddered. “And have you discovered her pliable to your remarkable charm?”
“I have made no attempt to do so,” Hideo said. “There are some things that should never be fought, I think.” He smiled, but it was not as warm as usual. He was quiet for a moment, and then, “Have you spoken to anyone about what happened?”
“I completed a report and submitted it to the Kitsuki records, as is appropriate for such an endeavor,” Taiko said. “I wrote a letter to my Champion as well, but I expect nothing to come of it. The matter is concluded.”
“That is not what I mean,” Hideo said. His voice was just above a whisper. “Have you spoken of what we saw?”
Taiko fixed him with an icy glare. “We swore an oath,” she said. “Would you ask me if I am so honorless as to have broken it already?”
Hideo shook his head. “I have not either, but I long to.” He ran a hand through his hair absently. “I still see it. When I sleep.”
“Do not speak of it further,” Taiko said. “I do not want to think of it.”
But of course that was impossible.
* * *
The Kitsune Mori, two months earlier
Hiruma Aki bellowed with rage as he swung his sword wildly. It was a massive no-dachi, half again as large as any other such blade, but in the hands of Aki it seemed perfectly normal sized. It had been crafted especially for his father, who had been a giant of a man that had dwarfed even Aki himself. For all his strength and prowess, however, Aki was losing this battle, and the knowledge of it drove him nearly mad with rage and frustration.
The berserker snarled and swung again, but his opponent flitted among the shadows and seemed to fade into the forest like smoke. Aki’s strike hit a small tree and cut completely through its trunk, dropping the top half to the forest floor with a crash. “Face me!” he roared. “Cowards!”
“I do not think they take insult easily!” Yoritomo Saburo shouted back. He had his twin weapons at the ready and was fighting in a more defensive stance. As Aki watched it seemed to draw the enemy out from the bushes to attack him, making them slightly more vulnerable. He frowned at the unfamiliar nature of the tactic, but assumed what he thought was a defensive stance and resolved to attempt it himself.
For weeks now, the two samurai and their companions had been playing deadly games of cat and mouse with the mysterious assailants in the forest. They encountered them only sporadically, and only ever when they were unaccompanied by their Kitsune hosts. The Kitsune family had continued to offer their hospitality without complaint for months, despite that they had not witnessed an incursion by the mysterious enemies since the arrival of the Mantis Clan occupation forces nearly a year previously. To the Kitsune, the matter was closed, and it was largely only their respect for the parent clans of Saburo and his colleagues that they had been allowed to remain.
In the months he had been in the woods, Aki had grown more and more frustrated with the elusive nature of his opponents. There had been perhaps five encounters all together, and none of htem had been conclusive. Every time, his enemies disappeared into the forest, sometimes simply by diving into the underbrush or vanishing behind a tree. Aki longed for battle and victory. “Come on,” he growled almost to himself, his voice nothing but a whisper. “Come on. Come to me!”
One of them stepped from the darkest recesses of the forest canopy, then another, and then a third. When they emerged from the darkness, so flawless was their ability that it seemed almost like they materialized rather than simply revealed themselves. It was as if they did not exist at all until the moment you were looking at one. In the heavily filtered light they seemed… faded. The cloth obscuring their every feature had no color. Even their blades seemed to be empty of any substance. But they were deadly enough.
The three advancing toward him stopped suddenly and glanced at one another in rapid succession. Then they began to take a slow step backwards, then another. Something had happened, and they were withdrawing. Already the two in the rear had disappeared back into the canopy’s shadow, and were gone. The third, the one that had been first to advance on Aki, took another step closer to the shadows, but remained in the light.
“No!” Aki shouted. He lunged forward, bringing his blade down in an overhead strike that would surely have shattered stone. His assailant was caught momentarily off guard, as he had been turning to disappear into the shadows. The blade struck him atop his left shoulder and, amazingly, Aki felt a tug of resistance as the steel met something of actual substance. There was a high-pitched shriek that seemed strangely like the cry of a locust, and the cloaked bandit fell to the ground in a writhing heap.
“Fortunes!” Aki swore.
Saburo was there in an instant, his assailants having disappeared just as the other two Aki had been facing. His eyes widened. “What is it?” he whispered. He reached down slowly as if to touch it, transfixed by what he was seeing.
“No!” Aki shouted, pulling the other man away by the shoulder and nearly tossing him across the tiny clearing in the process. “Do not touch him!”
Saburo stared at the Crab blankly, then shook his head as if struggling to clear his thoughts. “What… what is it?”
Aki looked back down at his assailant. The man was writing in the sunlit grass, torn open from shoulder to hip by the force of Aki’s strike. It should have killed him instantly, but the man still lived. No blood seeped from his grievous wound. Instead, an ink-like substance flowed from him into the grass, where it pooled briefly before dissipating like fog in the morning sun. “I have never seen anything like this,” he said quietly, “but I have heard something of it.”
“Too late,” the dying thing on the ground whispered. “Too late, too late, too late. The prophet… is ours.” Then it was gone. It seemed to melt into the grass, but unlike the others that disappeared into the forest, there was a sense of finality to this one. This was death, not escape.
“We have never killed one,” Saburo said. “I have never seen that. Never even seen one wounded. What happened?”
Mutely Aki withdrew a small satchel from his obi and opened it. Within was contained a number of items that he had been sent from home at his request, including several fingers of jade, an assortment of spirit ribbons from the Toritaka hunters, and one other item. He lifted that one now and showed it to the Mantis. There was a flicker of recognition in his eyes. “The prophet,” he said.
The two men ran.
* * *
“Stop,” Utaku Kohana said suddenly, holding her hand out.
The others inside the small residence all obliged, looking at her strangely. One among them, a young Scorpion whose features were obscured by a large mask, tilted his head to the side. “Excuse me?”
The Unicorn again waved for him to be silent. He bristled visibly at the gesture, but said nothing. Perhaps it was her tone, or the expression on her face, but something had assured him that she was not being trivial. Or perhaps he had simply grown as tired of bickering with Hideo as the others had grown tired of listening to it.
“What is it?” Taiko asked asked. Her voice was soft, just above a whisper, and almost musical in its quality. Kohana had arrived the day before to offer the Khan’s congratulations to the Kitsune daimyo on the impending marriage of his niece to the Mantis Champion, but already she and Taiko had become kindred spirits.
“There is no noise,” Kohana said. “None at all.”
The others listened to the abject silence of the late afternoon. Despite that the vast majority of the village was in attendance at the Kitsune daimyo’s court, the sounds of the forest were normally almost overwhelming. Those who had dwelled within the village for some months had grown accustomed to them, and now the silence was strangely disconcerting. “Something is wrong,” Bayushi Eisaku said.
The wooden walls of the structure’s front exploded inward, and the bodies of the two Kitsune sentries were cast within like children’s toys. Both landed in terribly contorted positions and did not move. Behind them came the all too familiar forms of the mysterious assailants from the woods, enemies that none among the Kitsune had laid eyes upon for months.
“Sons of Winter!” Hideo spat, leaping to battle with his blade drawn.
“Well, well,” Eisaku said. “Perhaps you are not fools after all. Fortunate that my lord Nomen decided to leave in the morning rather than earlier today!”
“Be silent and fight!” Kohana said. “Idiotic men.”
The fighting was fierce and difficult in such an enclosed space. Despite the afternoon sun, the interior of the building was strangely dark. The Sons of Winter attacked without mercy or any apparent sense of self-preservation, a trait that they seemed to have little need of, for they did not appear to suffer from wounds inflicted by their combatants. Even Eisaku quieted after a moment, consumed with the fury of a battle that seemed impossible to win.
With a ferocious shout, Aki and Saburo burst through the ruined remnants of the front wall. The Sons turned to face them, their demeanor suddenly concerned. Aki cut through a pair of them with a single strike, and Saburo felled one with a twin kama strike to the chest. Those felled by the two newcomers did not rise.
The Sons were trapped, pinned beneath a wall of steel that would not move, a wall headed by Hideo and Eisaku fighting back to back, and the unstoppable force of the Crab and Mantis warriors who had stormed into their presence. Saburo shouted in surprise and pain as one cut his shoulder deeply with a short blade, but repaid his assailant with death. One bearing a crude club of some sort caught the Scorpion off guard with a glance blow to the side of his head, but Hideo staved off the death blow and Aki dispatched the creature at once.
And then it was over, as quickly as it had begun, leaving the chamber ruined by violence and thick with the scent of blood.
Taiko put her wakizashi away shakily. “Is everyone all right? Bayushi-san?”
Hideo lifted the man’s mask away and checked for signs of life. “He breathes yet,” he said. “There is a lot of blood, but the wound appears minor.”
Taiko nodded and looked to Kohana. The young Unicorn was inspecting Aki’s wounded shoulder, and she nodded once, quickly. That wound, too, was not serious, much to Taiko’s relief. “Saburo?”
The Mantis draped a scrap of cloth over the eyes of one of the two fallen sentries. “Dead,” he said. “They were likely dead the moment they were struck.”
“I struck two at least that could not have lived,” Hideo said, gesturing to the dissipating pools of inky blackness that vaguely resembled the outlines of men, “and yet just as before, they seemed to barely notice. How did you kill them?”
Saburo nodded toward the wounded Aki. “Our friend here sent word back to his family that he had discovered something he could not kill. As it turns out, the Crab love a challenge. Show them the bag.”
Aki opened the satchel at his belt with his good hand, wincing slightly at the pain in his wounded shoulder. He dumped the contents on the floor in front of him. “Spirit ribbons, fingers of jade, a few ritual scrolls… none of which has any apparent effect.” He paused and pulled out a small item. “This was effective, however.” He tossed it to Kohana. “I gave one to Saburo as well, as you might have guessed.”
Kohana turned the small object over in her hands. It was a personal chop, an old one from the look of it. It was wooden, with an intricately carved stone seal on one end and a small, crystal adornment on the other. “Crystal,” she whispered. “The Lying Darkness.”
Hardly, a voice whispered all around them. That particular entity is long gone, having returned to the nothingness from which it was comprised decades ago. No, I am its successor, and one far more suited to this manner of endeavor, I think.
“Who speaks?” Hideo demanded, lowering Eisaku’s head to the floor and taking up his blade. “Who is there?”
I am not ‘there,’ as you say, no more than I am truly anywhere. The voice seemed to chuckle as if at children. I have been within this forest for quite some time. It first came to my attention when I slew the previous Fox Champion. I have no name that the men and women of Rokugan have ever heard, but if it pleases you, for the final moments of your life you may call me… the Shadow Dragon.
“This is some manner of trickery,” Kohana said. “These men, your compatriots, are no more than cultists or blood sorcerers, as Saburo said.”
Once, perhaps, the voice agree. Now, however… so much more than that. I called them from the depths of the darkness that is mine to command, consumed as they were by my predecessor before it was unmade. The day outside the building darkened as if it were night, and tendrils of darkness began to wind inside the building. Since my prize was lost to me by the accursed Legion of the Dead, I thought perhaps the portals to the Realm of Animals contained within this wood would be of use. Can you imagine the ability to perceive everything seen by the animals of this world? To control them from afar? It would have been glorious.
“The Kitsune will stop you,” Saburo hissed.
Stop me? Do not be ridiculous. No one believes that a threat still exists except for you precious, annoying few. And that will not be the case much longer. The voice was not particularly threatening, speaking instead as if merely stating fact. Regardless, my goals have changed, as I believe your clever magistrate suspects.
The others turned toward Taiko, who had paled. “You want the prophet.”
Of course! The voice seemed delighted, and the tendrils were now in all parts of the room, moving about almost at random, completely oblivious to the attempts of the warriors to stop them. The power to see what will come of this new Dynasty? The power to foresee the actions of the clans? What could be greater? My power will be without end.
The tendrils parted the curtain that separated the room from the chamber where the prophet rested. Aki bellowed and lunged forward, lifting his blade, but a casual twitch from one of the tendrils of darkness sent him crashing across the room to shatter a table. You shall be my witnesses, the Dragon said. You shall watch my ascension, and then I shall destroy you. I am afraid my penchant for the dramatic causes me no end of complications, but I cannot resist an audience. I will be with you in just one moment, children.
“What do we do?” Kohana shouted. “Taiko, what do we do? Aki?”
“I don’t… I don’t know!” Taiko said, her eyes swimming with tears. “We cannot stop it!”
“The crystal,” Aki said, getting shakily to his feet. “It did not… did not hurt it.”
“It is beyond such things,” Taiko said. “We cannot hope to harm it.”
There was a gurgle of pain from the adjoining room, then a soft, hissing laughter that made all their blood run cold. Hideo’s grip tightened on the blade, and he looked to the others. Saburo and Kohana both nodded as Taiko helped Aki to his feet, and the group braced to charge the room. “May the Fortunes forgive us for what we must do,” Hideo whispered.
“No,” Saburo said, shouldering past Hideo. “She is Kitsune. I am Mantis. It must fall to me.”
As the group took their first, fateful step toward the prophet’s chambers, the sinister, hissing laughter stopped abruptly, cut off with an unmistakable if inarticulate sound of confusion and surprise. It was immediately replaced with not a single scream of pain, but two in perfect harmony; one inhuman and as horrible as the laughter had been, the other that of a young woman.
“Narako-san!” Saburo shouted, and he rushed through the curtain without hesitation. The others followed close behind.
Kitsune Narako, the greatest prophet born to the Empire of Rokugan in perhaps centuries, was standing above her mat, floating in the air. The tendrils of shadow encircled her now, writing as if in great pain. Her eyes were open, but they did not see, covered as they were with a thick membrane of white. “She looked like this when she issued the First Prophecy,” Taiko whispered.
Narako screamed a second time, likewise accompanied by the dragon’s own scream, and the thick stuff of shadow spilled forth from her mouth. It spread throughout the room like a fog, billowing into every corner until those standing within it could see nothing of what surrounded them. And in the darkness, shapes took form.
Fire burned throughout the mountains.
A wall lay shattered and burned.
The dead walked throughout the Empire.
A god made mortal held parlay with the fallen.
And somewhere far away, something horrible moved toward the Empire. In its wake was nothing but death, chaos, and ruin.
A third scream pierced the late afternoon, this one made only by the dragon. Shadow erupted from every part of Narako’s body, and the tendrils fled as if terribly burned by some great purity. The darkness was gone, and the room was there again, but somehow diminished. Narako fell to her mat and struggled to rise.
“Easy,” Kohana said softly stepping to her side. “All is well. Do not try to move.”
“Tell no one!” Narako burst out, her eyes wild with terror. “Tell no one! You must not!”
“Why not, prophet?” Taiko asked. “The Empire must be warned.”
“Only the Empress must know,” Narako said, her voice shaking. “To tell any other is to ensure their ruin. All who hear the word save the Empress will come to ruin and death. If you honor your families, if you honor your clans, you will not speak of this save to the Empress!”
“Empress?” Hideo asked. “What Empress?”
“The tournament,” Saburo said. “Did you not hear the proclamation two days ago?”
“That was not the Kaiu Wall,” Aki insisted. “It shall never fall. The Khol wall, perhaps?”
“Be silent!” Kohana hissed. “Narako-san, what else? Please, what else?”
“Your blood…” the prophet whispered, but then her eyes rolled back into her head and she went limp.
* * *
“I have no wish to think of it either,” Hideo said. “But the oath to tell no one… it troubles me greatly.”
“Do you think me not troubled?” Iweko asked bitterly.
“The Empress is your kinsmen,” Hideo said. “Surely you can gain access to speak with her?”
“She is my eighth cousin by marriage. Three marriages, actually,” Iweko said. “The Empress does not grant audiences to those of my rank. Not without reason.”
“We have reason,” Hideo insisted. “If we speak of it to our Champions…”
“Then we doom them to ruin,” Iweko said. “That is what the prophet said. Have you ever known her to be wrong? Even by the slimmest of measures? I will not doom my family and Champion to death when it may yet be prevented.”
“An honorable samurai does not withhold the truth from his lord,” Hideo said.
“If your Lady Domotai had a son who indulged in vice and cowardice, would you speak of it to her?” Iweko demanded. “Would you shame her with the truth?”
The Crane warrior began to retort, but looked away. “No,” he answered. “No, I would not.”
“This is no different,” Iweko said. “We must be vigilant. Our opportunity will come, and on that day we will share all that we know with the Empress. If she demands our lives for the secrecy we keep, then I will gladly give it in exchange for the opportunity to speak to her the truth.”
Hideo shook his head slowly. “I suppose in the meantime we should maintain a vigil for the prophet as well.”
“No, that will not be necessary.”
The two samurai turned to see a familiar face, although one clad in much more splendid attire than that to which they had become accustomed. “Saburo-san,” Taiko said with a bow. “It is good to see you again.”
“And you as well,” Saburo said, returning the bow. “I regret that I alone can offer you the gratitude that my entire clan owes you but, as you said, we can not speak of the truth just yet. The Mantis know only that you assisted in protecting the prophet from one last attack by the bandits from the forest, who managed to escape after a short skirmish.”
Taiko smiled. “My reports say much the same.”
“However,” Saburo continued, “your continued presence in the Kitsune provinces will not be necessary. The prophet will no longer be available to any save the Mantis, and those whom the Empress requires. To allow outsiders is too great a risk?”
“A risk?” Hideo was exasperated. “Us? A risk to the prophet?”
“Exceptions cannot be permitted,” Saburo said. “I hope you understand. There has been too much strain on her blessed talents. The First Prophecy incapacitated her for almost a week. Who knows how long this Second Prophecy will lay her low? If there is to be a Third or subsequent prophecies, then they will be heard and recorded by the Mantis alone. So valuable a treasure will not be lost to the benefit of others.”
“You speak as if we exploited her for our own benefit,” Taiko said bitterly. “As if we were little more than ambitious opportunists.”
“I do not mean to imply such,” Saburo said. “But the prophet, her gifts, and her security are a matter for the Mantis Clan now. If you find offense in this I can but apologize, but it changes nothing.” He stopped and bowed. “The Mantis will ever consider you allies for your efforts, and once the truth is known, you will be lauded as heroes. You are welcome in our lands always, save for Prophet Village, where none are welcome.” He rose and smiled. “I bid you good day, my friends.”
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