In the heart of the Spider Clan, a dangerous man undermines the work of his entire clan merely to cling to his own power and prestige. An act that does not go unnoticed
By Nancy Sauer
Edited by Fred Wan
A thin stream of smoke arose in a straight column from the burning incense, filling the room with a bittersweet scent. Chuda Seikai laid his brush down for a moment and breathed deep, rubbing his stiff fingers together to soothe them. Then he picked up the brush and prepared to continue his work.
The smoke billowed sideways and suddenly Seikai was no longer alone in his room. Isawa Fosuta stood before him, smiling benignly. Katsu didn’t trust the expression for a moment, and he doubted Seikai did either. The Chuda stared upwards at the new arrival for a moment, then put down his brush again and bowed over his desk. “Isawa-sama,” he said, “I am surprised to see you here. Is anything amiss?”
“Not at the moment,” Fosuta said. “But as I am the Onyx Champion, it is my duty to keep abreast of all magical research going on here. I wish to see the scroll you are working on.” He put out an open hand.
Seikai twitched, ever so slightly, at the request. “Isawa-sama, I am afraid someone has misinformed you. This scroll does not contain research, it is merely a copy of an already known ritual.” Fosuta did not answer, but continued to stand there with a hand ready to receive the scroll. Seikai waited, and waited, and finally he picked up the scroll and handed it to him. Fosuta read through it carefully and then handed it back.
“Thank you, Seikai-san,” he said. “It is so important for a man in my position to know what the other shugenja are doing, don’t you agree?”
“Indeed,” Seikai said. “Very important.” He waited until Fosuta had left the room, and then crumpled the paper of the scroll and threw it across the room in a gesture of irritation.
Katsu sat back from the bowl of blood he had been using to scry with, a thoughtful frown on his face. Many odd magics had become possible for him after his transformation into the type of gaijin sorcerer known as a khadi, and using them it was possible to spy even on someone as wily as the Onyx Champion. It was clear to him now what Fosuta was up to; the only question was what, if anything, to do about it.
After a few minutes he rose up and left his chambers. Walking without haste he traveled through the Fingers of Bone, making one stop to pay his respects to a shrine to Bishamon some pious Spider samurai had erected, and then pausing to admire a natural pillar of rock whose colors were that of a clear sunrise: rose, saffron and glorious pearly white. Finally his route wound around to the tower where Daigotsu administered the daily business of the Spider, and here he presented himself to the guards and requested an audience with his lord. A few minutes passed, during which he was careful to think about nothing in particular, and then the doors were opened to him.
Katsu entered and immediately knelt down and bowed to Daigotsu. “Thank you for permitting me to see you this day,” he said. As he spoke the doors behind him slid shut, and he relaxed slightly. The chamber was impossible to scry once the doors were closed, and Katsu knew this was true, for he had helped create the wards that protected it.
“Of all of your many faults,” Daigotsu said, “no one would ever call you frivolous. If you wish to tell me something, then I wish to hear it.”
“I will go directly to the point, then. My lord, Isawa Fosuta is watching over the most powerful shugenja here. He is working to intimidate them, to prevent them from challenging him for the position of the Onyx Champion.”
Daigotsu affected a surprised look. “And this is a cause for concern? The Champion should be strong-if the others are so afraid then they do not deserve the position.”
“My lord, it is a problem because Fosuta is not loyal to you. The Onyx Champion should be your champion, and Fosuta is not. You know this: he has abandoned your vassals more than once when he felt at risk, when his presence could have brought victory, or at least a greater price in blood for the opposition.”
“You think he is now loyal to another?” Daigotsu did not feel the need to specify a name.
“No,” Katsu said. “Fosuta’s loyalty is where it has always been: Isawa Fosuta.”
“Iweko has Jimen,” Daigotsu said dryly, “I have Fosuta. It has a certain symmetry, don’t you think?”
“The Empress, perhaps, can afford divided loyalties,” Katsu said. “Can you?”
“You have grown bold, Katsu.”
“You are my lord, and you are in peril. The Empire has never stopped hunting for you, and now Kali-Ma is gnawing on the souls of your most devoted followers. I speak because I must.”
Daigotsu was silent for a moment. Katsu served him because he had the khadi’s heart in an iron box, to be destroyed at any time, but even more so because bushido was the man’s last remaining link to humanity-but that did not make his show of loyalty any less impressive. “And how would my vassal counsel me?”
“Set Shahai to challenge Fosuta.”
“She can destroy him with ease!”
“No,” Daigotsu said, and then held up a hand when Katsu started to speak. “She, and you, are weapons I hold in reserve-I do not wish anyone here to have the full measure of your power. And before you question the wisdom of this, ask yourself what would have happened if Konestu had known the exact location of the Fingers of Bone, or anything at all about the southern stronghold.”
Katsu paused at this. Konetsu had vanished en route to the Scorpion lands, only to reappear in the Crane lands, penitent and completely devoid of Taint. The incident was baffling in the extreme, and it had touched off frenzied efforts to catalog and deal with any plan he might have had useful information on. “I will not say secrecy is unnecessary,” he said, “but you must weigh the danger that Fosuta represents to you as well.”
“True, true.” Daigotsu was silent for a few minutes, thinking. Katsu waited patiently. “Yes,” Daigotsu said finally, “yes, this will work.” He looked at Katsu. “Fosuta is unaware you have been watching him?”
“Continue your watching, but now do it so that he becomes aware. Do nothing obviously threatening, but do not let his attention wander from you.”
“As you will, my lord.” Katsu bowed and departed.
* * * * *
Mirumoto Hohiro stared at the travel papers, wondering what to do now. He was a warrior sent to man a way-station on a little-used road while he finished healing from his battle-wounds, and no one had told him how to deal with travel papers signed by an Otomo he had never heard of. It seemed to him that not every Otomo had authority to grant such things, but he suspected that offending one who did would have unfortunate consequences. He looked up at the traveler who had presented them, hoping for some clue as to how to proceed, and noticed something odd about the man.
“Takasho-san,” Hohiro said, “your papers name you a ronin, but there is a mask at your belt such as the Scorpion wear.”
“You are perceptive,” Takasho said gravely. He took the mask from his obi and held it up, as if presenting it for inspection. “I was once of the Scorpion, and I used my talent for speaking with the kami to ferret all manner of secrets for my lord. He had no spy better than I-until the day I witnessed the Empress’s ascension.”
“You were at the Tournament?” Hohiro said, fascinated.
“I was, but only as a servant of my clan. I was on the very edges of the crowd when the Divine One was purified by the light of heaven, but even that was enough-in the glow of that radiance I realized that I was little more than a blasphemer, perverting the holy rituals of the kami to deeds of dishonor.” Takasho paused for just a moment and gazed reverently up to the sky. “When I next saw my lord he immediately perceived what had happened to me. I was no longer of any use to him, so he released me from his service and allowed me to pursue the fate that I had been given. And so you see me now, a ronin in search of wisdom.”
“Takasho-san, it is clear to me now why you have come to the Dragon lands,” Hohiro said. “But you know that we are under attack by the forces of the Dark Oracle; there is no safely on our roads.”
“You are kind, Mirumoto-san, to warn me. But our fates are laid out for us at birth. I will find the monks of the Togashi and learn from them, or I will perish and seek my answers in the next life. I am content.”
“Very well,” Hohiro said. He rolled the papers up and returned them. “Carry the Fortunes, Takasho-san.”
“And you as well, Mirumoto-san.” Takasho tucked his papers away and started off. That story Usharo had told about the Tournament was endlessly useful, he reflected to himself, it was good that he had taken the time to listen to it.
* * * * *
The bench outside of the cook-shack was uncomfortable and the sake was dreadful, and the two fit Takasho’s mood perfectly. He morosely poured out the dregs into his cup and drank it down in a gulp.
He had been thrilled when he had been told he was being sent to the Fingers of Bone to carry news about the southern stronghold. He had not seen Daigotsu since the fateful day he had sworn his loyalty to the Dark Lord, and Takasho wasn’t even sure his lord remembered it at all. The task meant abandoning his schemes to become the chief shugenja of the southern stronghold, but it was worth it for another chance to impress Daigotsu.
Takasho picked up his sake bottle and rapped it on the door-frame of the shop. “More sake!” he yelled.
He hadn’t impressed Daigotsu. He hadn’t even been allowed to see Daigotsu. His report had been given to an undead functionary who had asked questions that even the stupidest bushi could have answered. It was the most frustrating day in his life, eclipsing even the time he had to deal with Ryoko Owari’s firemen gangs.
Takasho’s musings were interrupted by an abrupt shift in the crowds moving through the area. One moment there were steady streams of folk going about their business, and then next moment they were streaming into side streets and alleys, or ducking into the tiny shops along the way. Down the street to his left Takasho saw a young man in strange robes ornately decorated with bones being followed by an odd-looking creature that walked almost like a man, but which was completely covered in short grey-brown fur. To his right there was an older man clad in a kimono of rich brown trimmed with gold, staring pointedly at the man with the creature.
Takasho had just taken the measure of the two and concluded that hiding in the cook-shack would do him no good whatsoever when the older man smiled, bowed to the other, and set off briskly in another direction. Takasho stared after him for a moment, then looked up at one of the shack’s serving women, who now stood next to him, a bottle of warm sake in hand. “What just happened?” he said.
“Katsu, the son of the Dark Oracle of Air,” she said, nodding her head at the retreating man, and then with a nod to the other, “Isawa Fosuta, the Onyx Champion. Folks say that Katsu will challenge Isawa-sama for the championship.”
“Only Katsu? Surely there must be many who crave that honor.”
“Not anymore. Not since Isawa-sama poisoned the last one before he could even start the first prayer.” The woman was looking at him, Takasho noticed, with slightly more than the usual amount of attention.
“He poisoned his opponent?” Takasho said. “That’s brilliant! Clearly this man is worthy twice-over.” He raised his cup for the woman to fill. “Can you tell me any more stories about him? He is exactly the kind of leader our clan needs in these times.”
“I could say a few things, but I can’t be caught sitting and talking when there’s work to be done.” The woman set down the bottle and turned to leave.
“No, no, stay.” Takasho dropped a few coins on the bench. “I’ll pay for your time; your employer will have no complaints.”
“Well, if that is the case,” the woman said, and she knelt down and made herself comfortable. “They say Isawa Fosuta was an Inquisitor.”
Takasho listened closely to her words, his mind churning through plan and counter-plan.
* * * * *
The crowd in the arena buzzed with the excitement of the challenge to come. Katsu was present, standing patiently near the dais where Daigotsu and Shahai sat. He bore no scrolls that anyone could see, making many wonder what strange magic he would bring to bear against the Onyx Champion.
The noise shot up still further as Fosuta himself walked into the arena. “I am here!” he shouted. “Who comes to challenge me?” He looked pointedly over at Katsu. The khadi remained standing where he was, giving no acknowledgment to Fosuta’s words. The noise of the crowd began changing from anticipation to confusion.
“Is there no one with the courage to face me?” Fosuta said. He smirked at the crowd, clearly regarding Katsu’s inaction as a victory.
“I challenge you,” Takasho said, walking out of the crowd. He entered the circle and assumed a combat stance.
“You? Who are you?” Fosuta said.
“Your death,” Takasho said, and with a gesture he summoned a wind that scooped up rocks from the ground and hurled them at high speed at Fosuta. He needed to finish the fight quickly, he thought: the longer it went the greater the former Phoenix’s advantage.
Fosuta reacted and turned them back on Takasho, but the shugenja has expected that and had already summoned a whirlwind to shield him. From out of the heart of the wind flew birds shaped of unadulterated maho, and they shrieked and tore at the Onyx Champion’s face. Fosuta ripped them apart with a word and then assumed a ritual stance, jade fire gleaming at the fingertips of his right hand. Before he could finish the ritual a knife flew through the air and lodged itself in his right shoulder. He staggered back a moment, confused by an attack that was entirely non-magical, and attempted to heal the wound while raising a defense against the next attack.
“Missed, damn him,” Takasho cursed, and prepared to cast his most devastating spell. He had almost finished the invocation and was about to release it when a voice that could be neither ignored nor disobeyed rang through his head. “LOOK UP!” Takasho looked up and saw Fosuta’s strange furred companion falling down towards him. Reacting instinctively he released his spell, and the furred thing was enveloped by black crackling energies. There was a shriek from the thing, and then suddenly the crowd was showered by blood, hair, and shards of bone. Takasho scrambled for a protective spell, waiting for Fosuta’s next move, but nothing happened. Looking around the arena the shugenja realized that his opponent was gone, leaving him alone and alive in the circle.
The crowd, and Takasho, were still in the process of realizing that Fosuta had fled when Daigotsu summoned Katsu to his side with a gesture. “You know where he is?”
“In one of the tunnels leading out of the city, fleeing rapidly,” Katsu said.
“If possible, keep watch on where he goes. I may find a use for him later.” Daigotsu pointed at Takasho. “And now, bring my new Onyx Champion to me.”