Test of the Jade Champion

Prologue

The sound of heavy footfalls drew Hantei Naseru's attention from his calligraphy. He could hear the protesting squeals of his servants, begging the visitor to pause and remove their sandals before charging through Naseru's home. The Anvil smiled, almost imperceptibly. Only one person in Rokugan would enter his home in so bold a manner. He knew her even before the shoji screen slammed to open.
"Hello, sister," he said, setting his brush aside and rising from his low table.
Toturi Tsudao entered the room. Her armor was soiled and travel-worn. A deep gash marked her forehead. She looked as if she had come directly from a battlefield. "Naseru," she said, bowing curtly to her brother. "We must talk."
"Indeed," Naseru replied. His eyes narrowed in concern. " I am more than willing to hear your words, Tsudao-chan, but if you would prefer to bathe and relax first, consider my home your own. I shall wait here to attend you."
"I appreciate the hospitality, little brother, but I have no time," she replied.
Naseru frowned. "Is there some emergency, sister? My eyes outside the capitol have reported no notable crises. Or is it the Bloodspeakers again?"
"Yes," Tsudao nodded. "My Legions have overturned three cells of the cult in as many months. We found the latest only today, in North Hub Village.
"In sight of Otosan Uchi?" Naseru sneered. "They dare practice their art in the vicinity of the Imperial City? Blasphemous."
"Their activity seems to be on the rise," Tsudao nodded.
"What of the Kuni Witch Hunters?" Naseru asked. "The Inquisitors? It is their duty to deal with such matters. Why bring this matter to my attention?"
"The Kuni are too disorganized," Tsudao replied. "Their new daimyo, Kiyoshi, does his best to lead them but he is too inexperienced. A third of them are consumed with their quest for vengeance for Utagu's death. Another third are occupied in the Crab's war with the Crane. Many of the Asako Inquisitors have become similarly embroiled in their clan's war against the Dragon. There are many still willing to do their duty to the Empire, but not enough. Not enough by far, and the shadows seem to be growing."
"Then they must be reminded where their duty lies," Naseru said curtly.
"Which is why I have come to you, brother," Tsudao said. "Rokugan needs a new Jade Champion."
Naseru chuckled. "And you think such a thing is within my power?" he asked. "I was only allowed to hold the Test of the Emerald Champion because of our father's sanction, sister. You know that. I have many allies, but just as many enemies. Were I to call a tournament, there are many who would refuse to appear if only to spite me."
"Which is why I have already spoken to Kaneka and Sezaru," Tsudao said. "There are not many in Rokugan who would oppose all four heirs."
Naseru's eyebrow rose, but only slightly. "You met with the others already?"
Tsudao grinned. It was not often her brother displayed surprise so openly. "Perhaps you need to pay your spies more, little brother?" she asked.
"Perhaps," he nodded. "What did the others say?"
"Kaneka was eager to agree," she said. "One of the other cult cells was discovered in Lion lands. He destroyed it personally, with only a handful of Akodo to support him."
Naseru shrugged. "I'm overjoyed to hear of our half-brother's heroic exploits," he said in a disinterested tone. "And Sezaru?" he asked, his tone more sincerely concerned.
"Sezaru was trained by the Isawa," Tsudao replied. "He remains unconvinced there is a need for a Jade Champion, but he said he would not oppose the idea."
"Neither will I," Naseru said. "If your Legionnaires will be so kind as to spread the word, I shall begin putting plans into motion to organize the tournament this very hour. Is that acceptable, Tsudao-chan?"
"That sounds perfect, little brother," Tsudao said.
Naseru nodded and seated himself at his low table once more. He put aside his calligraphy and drew out a fresh piece of parchment upon which he could begin drafting orders. He began writing immediately, paying no more attention to his sister. It was clear from his manner that he considered their meeting concluded.
"You know, little brother, if the four of us were to work together more often, perhaps the Empire would be a more peaceful place," she said.
Naseru peered up at her, his expression unreadable. "Your idealism is refreshing, Tsudao-chan, but it is not realistic," he said. He continued writing as he spoke, his practiced hands tracing perfect characters even without his focused attention. "The Empire needs strength, not consensus rule. A strong Emperor would be preventing problems such as these Bloodspeakers, not reacting to them. In the end, only one of us can rule. You know that Sezaru knows this as well. As for our bastard brother, Kaneka, his opinions are not my concern."
Tsudao sighed. "An argument for another time, little brother," she said, brushing aside the subject. She knew well how eagerly Naseru leapt into a debate if not quickly headed off. "We must think of the Empire. The Empire needs a new Jade Champion."

o

"And so the Empire shall have one," said a dark voice. A tall figure watched the exchange between the two Winds through images rippling a pool of blood, many miles away. The grim half-light of the Shadowlands reflected from multiple sharpened horns protruding from the figure's forehead. It smiled an eery, mirthless smile.
"A new Jade Champion shall reign," it mused. "Ever do they fail to learn... Ever do they fail to see. He who stands first against the darkness stands closest to its fury. If they cannot remember... then I must show them. In the name of our Master."
The creature smoothed its broad shouldered kimono, dyed with tones of darkest midnight and fresh blood. Stepping from the rocky precipice, the beast named Hakai - Death, Destruction, Annihilation - hovered out onto the darkened sky.
A swirling cloud of dark spirits followed in its wake as it journeyed to Otosan Uchi.