By Shawn Carman
THERE WAS RARELY A MOMENT OF QUIET within the vast Shinomen Mori. The crisp, pungent air was tilled with the sounds of the forest, even during the depths of winter. Most were simple noises, the sort one might hear in any forest. Occasionally, however, there would come a noise from the deepest regions of the forest. The regions which no living soul had ever dared plumb, that gave pause even to those hardy, jaded men and women who called the forest home. Even among the callous, brutal warriors of the Spider Clap. There were many who would pause and wonder privately what manner of monstrosity might make such sounds.
And yet, there were times of late when an even stranger sound filled the air. It was one that gave many pause. Some stopped in their tracks and agonized, succumbing for one brief moment to the enormity of what they had lost in their lives. Others simply smiled, taking some tiny measure of pleasure from the sound. Still others, the most bestial and depraved of the Spider, simply stood and stared in confusion toward their city’s temple, uncertain of how to respond to such an alien sound.
The laughter of a child rang out again through the city.
Daigotsu, the Dark Lord of the Shadowlands, chosen heir of the dark god Fu Leng, and the Champion of the Spider Clan, smiled widely as his tiny son grabbed his finger and cooed contentedly. “He grows more marvelous by the day,” Daigotsu said, stroking his son’s thin wisps of jet black hair.
“He does,” his wife agreed. Shahai smiled, the expression no less warm for the blood red crimson of her lips. “He is such a content child. He has rarely cried, and is exceedingly curious.”
The Dark Lord nodded as the tiny child turned a netsuke bearing the mon of Fu Leng over in his hands again and again, staring at it intently. “He is strong,” he said. He lifted his left hand and gently ran his fingertips across Shahai’s cheeks, dwelling for an instant on her lips and cupping her chin slightly. “Like his mother.”
Shahai smiled adoringly and tucked an errant lock of Daigotsu’s white hair behind his ear. “And beautiful, like his father.”
Daigotsu kissed her lightly, and the two spent time with their son, watching and laughing as the child explored the room, reaching for everything that he could see. After some time, however, Daigotsu rose and brushed his robes. He bent and kissed his son on the head, and although the boy frowned when his father did not pick him up, he was quickly distracted by an insect crawling across the floor, and gave chase.
Shahai watched as Daigotsu lifted his exquisitely crafted mask to his face. “Duty calls, does it?”
“Always,” he replied.
“Be careful that you balance all your duties,” she admonished. “You do not wish your son to grow to adulthood without knowing his father.”
“I will never allow that to happen,” he replied. “But if, by some quirk of fate, he must grow to adulthood without my presence, then he will at least know that his father loved him enough to carve an empire for him.”
ONE OF THE LESSER TEMPLES throughout the Spider’s small city was devoted exclusively to the mysterious order of monks who served the clan. As a result, few of the other Spider ever entered. Daigotsu was privately amused that the order, who contained many members who did not bear the mark of Jigoku on them, could so ntimidate his most fearsome and corrupted warriors. Intimidate was probably too strong a word, but certainly the monks unsettled them. “Michio.”
The monk within the shrine, which was as much a dojo as anything else, halted in the midst of his kata. His face was obscured by the thick wraps that, as far as Daigotsu could tell, the monk never removed. “Hai, Daigotsu-sama.” He bowed, but it was not particularly deep. While the monk always used a respectful address, he alvtiays bowed as if to an equal, never a superior. It was another facet of his behavior that amused Daigotsu.
“I have a matter on which I require your counsel, Michio,” Daigotsu said.
“As you wish,” the monk replied. “I have nothing of concern to address this day.”
The Dark Lord smiled wryly beneath his mask. “You never address me as my lord, Michio. I find that curious. Even the most irreverent among my adherents uses that familiar address at one point or another.”
“I am not samurai,” Michio said flatly. “You are not my lord. I have but, one master.”
“Roshungi?” Daigotsu raised an eyebrow. “He addresses me as his lord.”
“Then that is his choice.”
Daigotsu chuckled and let the matter drop. “Unfortunately, your master is not in attendance today, and I require a… let us say a unique perspective on a matter that must be addressed immediately.’ He gestured to a cloaked man lingering beyond the doorway, his features completely obscured by a basket hat. “It would be better, perhaps, if you heard the account from one who witnessed it.”
The stranger entered the temple, inclining his head respectfully to the monk, who returned the nod. “Are you familiar with Katsu?” the Dark Lord asked.
“The Khadi,” Michio answered at once.
For a moment it was as if Katsu’s glare was discernable even from beneath the expansive brim of his hat. “Yes,” he answered his voice devoid of all emotion.
“Katsu is among my most trusted vassals,” Daigotsu said.
“Loyalty purchased with the promise of instant destruction is hardly a worthy investment,” the monk observed.
“You forget yourself,” Daigotsu returned, the faintest hint of a threat in his voice. “I would not tolerate any who questioned your loyalty, and by that same measure I will not permit you to question Katsu’s.”
Michio raised his eyes slightly in surprise, then bowed, slightly deeper than before. “My apologies.”
“Before we discuss the information Katsu has uncovered, perhaps you might speak as to the state of affairs in Rokugan. You travel its breadth and depth more so than either of us.”
“Of course,” Michio replied. “As expected, the clans have begun to turn upon one another. For all their talk of honor and duty, they flail about like children in the darkness whenever they are without a master to command them. Each twists and turns in the wind, searching for direction, and those who rule them begin to taste the promise of power in the air. The new wave of wars has already begun, and they will continue until someone with true strength seizes control and allows them to serve as they so long to.”
“Utterly predictable,” Daigotsu said. “And beneficial, so far as we are concerned. What of our efforts?”
“They proceed as anticipated,” the monk replied. “Support for your mon grows exponentially among the people of the unaligned lands. The training of ashigaru legions has already begun, and if pressed you could field an army equal to almost any Great Clan.”
“Impressive,” Katsu acknowledged.
“Michio and his brothers are nothing if not determined,” Daigotsu said. “Have there been any unexpected setbacks?”
“Nothing of any tremendous magnitude,” Michio said. “There has been no news from the Crab Clan, thus we must assume that Omoni has not experienced success.”
Daigotsu waved the comment away. “Not a matter for your concern.”
“The Mantis continue their willful ignorance of our activities,” Michio said. “Their magistrates conveniently overlook the intervention of my brothers and your soldiers so long as they do not transgress in any obvious manner. Which of course they do not.”
The Dark Lord chuckled. “The service of Yoritomo Hotako was doubly beneficial. Anything further?”
The monk paused, as if uncertain, but only for a moment. “There appears to be a faction within the Togashi order who have taken it upon themselves to discover the origin of my brothers,” he admitted. “There have been a handful of encounters. Violence has not been completely avoidable in all cases.”
“I see.” The Dark Lord frowned. “The Togashi are difficult adversaries, given their unpredictability. I trust you and yours can deal with them appropriately.”
“Of course,” Michio replied. “A delaying tactic is all that is required, after all.”
“Indeed,” Daigotsu said. “This might be an appropriate time to discuss Katsu’s information as well.” He gestured to the heartless sorcerer, who bowed.
“Before winter, I was Lord Daigotsu’s emissary at the Jade Championship.”
“The Jade Championship?” Michio said. “I would think a man of your… talents would be ill at odds with the individuals who might attend such an event.”
Katsu tilted his head somewhat to the side. “You have attended the Championship in the past?”
“Then I will not concern myself with your assumptions,” Katsu continued. “During the course of the events, a young woman from the Fox Clan arrived at the event. She was nothing to speak of, neither a clan representative nor a competitor. At least, that was the initial impressions of those who encountered her, but they were proven mistaken.”
Michio frowned. “Did she somehow emerge as the new Jade Champion?”
“No,” Katsu said. “She did, however, display the gift of prophecy prior to the final match.
It was quite disruptive, and may represent a greater concern for our efforts.”
“Prophecy,” Michio said flatly. “I do not believe in such things.”
“The woman predicted the outcome of the tournament,” Katsu said. “She likewise predicted a treacherous result between the Scorpion and the Dragon, an outcome that many among our number have predicted as well.”
“I believe your master Roshungi is among those who believe a rift between the two is inevitable,” Daigotsu mused. “Are you not in fact attempting to exacerbate differences between the two already?” .
“We are,” Michio said with a scowl. “It is necessary to divert the attention of the Scorpion who are attempting to discover the truth behind our efforts.”
“Proceed,” Daigotsu continued.
Katsu nodded. “The woman’s prediction regarding the Scorpion and the Dragon aroused the ire of a nearby Dragon representative. She was removed from the public eye, but issued one last prophecy, one of considerable scope. It was heard by a number of clan representatives, many of whom immediately shared it with other members of their clans. As a result, it was a simple matter to discover an account. Obviously there is some room for uncertainty, given that I did not hear it firsthand, but the essentials are presumably correct.”
The monk turned to Daigotsu with an inquisitive expression. “You have heard this supposed prophecy?”
“Do you place stock in it?”
The Dark Lord considered for a moment. “I believe in the gift of prophecy, but I do not believe that it is infallible. I do not believe that this is something that can be ignored. If it is in fact genuine, the price of ignorance would be complete failure in our endeavors. And that is unacceptable.”
“As you wish,” the monk said. “I would hear this prophecy, if you will.”
“The prophecy addresses many things, and seems to come in pieces,” Katsu said. “The first part addresses the fall of Rokugan from what the prophet called ‘the path of the Heavens.’ There has been some concern among certain shugenja families and monastic orders regarding this, but most samurai do not seem troubled.”
“It is beyond their ken,” Daigotsu said, his voice thick with content. “They do not fear something they cannot comprehend.”
“The path of Heaven,” Michio scoffed. “A ridiculous lie, forged by Fortunes to force mortals to obey their command. Only those strong enough to seek their own path are immune to the whims of such foolish entities. Of course, few among the clans have such strength.”
“The prophecy goes on to speak of a new Emperor, or at least that is the common interpretation. It speaks of a Light of Heaven that will rule over the Empire, and goes on to say that the Light will cast down the clan that failed in their duties.”
“Intriguing,” Michio observed.
“Yes,” mused Daigotsu. “Certainly the part I find most intriguing. That a new Emperor will rise is of course inevitable. Without one, the clans would destroy themselves and the Empire would come to an end. There can be no Rokugan without an Emperor, no matter what name is given to the position. Shogun, Chancellor, Emerald Champion… the Empire must have an Emperor.” He tapped his chin with his finger. “It is the punishment of a clan that I find most intriguing. Imagine the possibilities that will manifest should such a thing come to pass.”
All very promising, and somewhat expected,” Michio said. “Nothing to indicate that the woman was a true prophet. I could have made such a statement, simply by stating the obvious.”
“Then perhaps you will find the prophecy’s conclusion of more interest,” Daigotsu said. “Katsu.”
The sorcerer hesitated, glancing at Daigotsu. “Your command was not to speak of the latter portion under any circumstances.”
“Your attention to detail is appreciated,” the Dark Lord said. “I rescind my command for this one conversation. Speak.”
Katsu seemed reluctant, but continued. “The prophecy speaks of dark warriors, perhaps beckoned by the song of jackals. It speaks of a wind of death blowing on the breath of a forgotten daughter that shall bring ruin to the Empire.”
Michio’s stance grew more rigid, his attention more focused. “Jackals,” he said.
“You see the reason I chose to find this legitimate,” Daigotsu said.
“Is there any chance, any whatsoever, that anyone outside our ranks knows of your pet gaijin?” the monk asked.
“None,” Daigotsu said. “Not even all within the Spider are aware of them.”
“Trusting creatures such as them is unwise,” Michio protested.
“It benefits me,” Daigotsu said. “For now.”
“And yet, if you place stock in this prophecy, they herald a dark fate for the Empire. Does this include the Spider as well? You have made your lot with the clans, for good or ill.”
“The first to come to me was a madman, a twisted creature whose soul, such as gaijin possess at least, was mingled with that of a filthy animal.” Daigotsu folded his hands within his sleeves. “He alone among those few who followed spoke to me the unadulterated truth. He warned of a coming storm, and his word alone among those who call themselves Jackals, I trust.”
“Then the prophecy can only be true,” Michio said “What must be done?”
“None of the clans possess the context necessary to understand,” Daigotsu said. “We alone know what must transpire, and we alone can prepare. To do so, however, we can no longer allow events to unfold at their own pace. We must force the issue.” “What is your intent?” Michio asked quietly.
“The time has come to accelerate the process,” Daigotsu said. “Carry the word to your order, Michio. Tell them the second stage of our plan has begun.”
For the first time, the monk bowed deeply, as if to a superior. “At your command, Dark Lord.”
THE SUN WAS LOW IN THE SKY as Daigotsu approached a second building. This one was far smaller than that used by Michio and his men, and so far as he was aware, was not used save by a single occupant of the city. It was a relatively recent construction, placed near the city’s edge, perhaps to ensure its privacy. As the Dark Lord approached the lone doorway, he could see the dojo’s single occupant, apparently deep in meditation.
“I gave instructions not to be bothered,” a smooth voice came from within. “Whatever matter troubles you, it will be dealt with in turn.”
“Curious, the selective adherence to duty samurai show,” Daigotsu returned.
The woman turned over her shoulder at her master’s voice, then quickly rose. “Forgive me, my lord,” she said, bowing deeply. “I did not know that you required me today.”
“When does the Dark, Lord of the Spider. Clan not have need of his Obsidian Champion?” he asked, his tone playful. “I am troubled to find you so separated from your fellow Spider, Hotako.”
Yoritomo Hotako made a dismissive gesture. “I find their company frequently distasteful,” she admitted. “I avoid them save when my duties require otherwise.”
“Unfortunate, but that is your right.” Daigotsu nodded. “Today I require of you only information. What can you tell me of a man named Shosuro Jimen?”
Hotako frowned. “I know of the name, but I can tell you little about him. He was the victor at the Emerald Championship a short time ago, was he not? A surprising turn of events, that.”
“Why?” Daigotsu pressed.
“He is not a warrior,” Hotako said flatly. “He is a courtier, and a particularly dangerous one from what I have heard. My cousin was an attendant in the entourage of Yoritomo Yoyonagi, and I know that there were few among the Imperial Court who did not respect or even fear him.”
“Did you fear him?”
“No,” Hotako said. “What reason would I have? He was a functionary of the Imperial Court. I cannot imagine a situation wherein I would have come to the attention of such an individual.”
“Walk with me.” Daigotsu gestured to the winding path that .skirted around the edge of the Spider city, and Hotako followed willingly enough. “I have come to know that you are a literal person,” he observed. “I respect that, for it leaves little room for lies or misunderstanding. By the same token, however, you know that an omission of information, even rumor, could be harmful. If your cousin was an attendant in the courts, as you say, then you will have heard rumors of this Jimen. I need to hear them, no matter how outlandish.”
She shrugged. “If you wish, my lord. I merely wished to avoid wasting your time.”
“For which I am grateful, as I seem to be pressed for time at every turn. Please continue all the same.”
Hotako nodded. “Some believe that Jimen gained his position by blackmailing the Scorpion Champion.”
“Preposterous,” Daigotsu scoffed. He gestured for her to continue.
“Others believe that he is the illegitimate child of a Clan Champion, fostered to the Scorpion as a child to keep his existence hidden, and trained as the ultimate weapon for the Clan of Secrets.”
“Unlikely,” Daigotsu observed.
“All that I know for certain,” Hotalco continued, “is my cousin’s observation of him from their limited encounter. She claimed that, if the current reputation of the Scorpion Clan is based upon an exaggeration of their prowess in centuries past, then centuries from now, the Empire will believe that the Scorpion were demons from the pits of Jigoku itself.”
This brought a wry smile from the Dark Lord. “Your cousin has a flair for the melodramatic, it seems.”
“She does,” Hotako agreed.
“Still, it seems that your former clanmates fear Jimen in court, and if they do, it follows that others do as well. Adding his rank as the Emerald Champion will only increase this. If he has the skill to warrant such fear, then he could potentially complicate matters further down the line.”
“I would think any Emerald Champion would be a potential complication,” Hotako said.
“Rightly so,” Daigotsu agreed. “He may need to be dealt with, if that proves to be the case.”
“I do not doubt that you have ample resources to ensure such a thing.”
“The Goju are ill-suited for use against the Scorpion,” the Dark Lord said. “It is like attempting to extinguish a campfire with a lit torch. Likewise, most of the samurai at my command would be squandered in an attempt to approach the Emerald Champion. No, if a direct solution is called for, then I will require a unique tool to accomplish what I require.”
The Obsidian Champion said nothing for some time as they walked together, until the Dark Lord stopped as the two stood outside a small building a short distance from the city’s perimeter. “Why have you come to me regarding this, my lord?”
“You are unique among my followers, Hotako-san,” Daigotsu said. “You do not serve me out of any sense of obligation, or of loyalty. You follow me because it serves your purposes to do so, and no other reason. That you have ascended to Obsidian Champion is merely a result of odd circumstance, would you not agree?”
“I would.” Her mouth was a thin, grim line. “I follow you because doing so allows me to hunt the same manner of filth who butchered my brother.”
“Do you trust me?” he asked quietly.
Hotako seemed surprised by the question, and considered it. “You have never lied to me,” she answered.
“And I will not lie now,” he said. “I have a gift for you, Hotako, a rare and precious gift. In exchange for it, you will give me your loyalty without question or reservation, and when the time comes, you will kill Shosuro Jimen for me.”
Hotako frowned. “Oh?”
“Yes.” He held out his hand, and offered her a long, wicked blade with a jagged edge.
“Take it. Take it, and open the door.” Hotako’s frown deepened, but she took the blade.
Carefully, she swung the door to the shed open.
Inside, a man stood, bound hand and foot to the wooden framework of the shed. His mouth was similarly bound. His kimono was torn, and many tattoos could be seen on his flesh. Most depicted some reference to the sea. “The man who ordered the death of your brother is dead,” Daigotsu said. “You killed him when you first entered my service.”
“Who is this?” Hotako demanded.
“This is the man who held the knife,” he answered. “As your brother fought to climb aboard the ship that destroyed yours, this man cut him down and left him to the sharks. This is the murderer of your brother, Yoritomo Hotako.” He paused. “Is your loyalty mine to command?”
Hotako held the blade aloft. “Forever,” she hissed through clenched teeth, and entered the shed.