The concluding vignette in a series based upon the events of the Embers of War expansion for the L5R CCG!
Embers of War, Part 3: The Spider
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
Daigotsu Kazuko looked over the scouting reports and nodded appreciatively. The level of detail was suitable for the schedule of advancement he had in mind. The damnable decree from the new Imperial Governor had complicated things beyond measure, and attempting to adjust the clan’s detailed plan of advancement into the as yet unexplored regions of the Colonies. He had a number of fronts that were ready to be pushed into already, and several incursion forces that were standing ready.
Kazuko frowned and placed his finger on one of the symbols on the map. It was the symbol for a temple, but with a character notation that indicated size. It was far too large, as large as the massive temples in the Second City or even in the Imperial City back in the Empire, and yet here it was, located squarely in the densest, most hostile reaches of the Colonial jungles. It made no sense at all there, unless…
“The Ruhmalites,” Kazuko said quietly, smiling. “At last.” He grabbed his blade from the stand where it rested while he was working, its blade as black as a moonless night. “Ishibashi!” he called.
The gunso was there in an instant, as always. “Commander?”
“Where is Lord Kanpeki presently?” Kazuko demanded.
Daigotsu Ishibash considered for a moment. “I believe he is at one of the forward watch stations today and tomorrow, commander,” he replied.
“Get the horses,” Kazuko said. “I must speak with him at once.”
“Of course,” Ishibashi replied. “How many troops will you require?”
“You and I should be sufficient. Speed is important.”
The warrior nodded. “As you wish.”
* * * * *
Daigotsu Kanpeki, Clan Champion of the Spider Clan, called by some the Shadow Emperor, wiped a smear of blood from his knuckles with a scrap of cloth and then tossed it aside, leaving a pale-faced servant to retrieve it. “I was sparring,” he said simply to those assembled in the castle’s meager audience chamber. “I assume that you have a matter of some significance, else you would not have had me disturbed.”
“It is,” Kazuko replied. “Preliminary scouting reports from one of the westernmost sections indicates that we have discovered one of the remaining strongholds of the Cult of Ruhmal.”
“The Ruhmalites,” Kanpeki said, his distaste obvious. “Wretched vermin.”
“They have been a thorn in our sides for many years,” Kazuko agreed. “We have no way of knowing if this is their primary temple, but its size makes that a distinct possibility.”
“When was the last significant conflict we experienced with this cult?” Kanpeki inquired.
Kazuko thought for a moment. “It precedes my advancement to commander, my lord,” he said. “However, I believe it was approximately three years ago. The Mantis have encountered them once since that time, but the scope of that conflict was relatively limited.”
“The Mantis.” Kanpeki’s tone was almost contemplative. “I have some as yet unread correspondence from Kalani’s Landing that awaits my attention. Do you believe the Mantis may have discovered this temple as well?”
“Unlikely,” Kazuko answered. “My agents report their scouting endeavors continue in the regions nearer to the coastline. They rarely venture this far north, and not at all since the accursed decree from the Imperial Governor.”
“Be careful,” Kanpeki said, lifting a single finger. “If you say anything to offend my guest I will be quite annoyed.”
Kazuko looked at the young woman who sat to the side, as quiet and unobtrusive as she had been every time the commander had ever seen her. What was the girl’s name? Machiko, perhaps. Despite his lord’s inexplicable favor toward her, Kazuko could never be bothered to remember her. “Of course, my lord,” he said anyway. “My apologies.”
“I do not take offense,” Machiko said quietly.
“It seems Suikihime’s reputation was quite questionable long before her appointment,” Kanpeki continued. “I imagine that the Mantis are as annoyed with her decree and the resultant chaos as we are.”
“The other clans have no business in these lands,” Kazuko said. The bitterness boiled up in him like a fever. “They deserve every misery they bring upon themselves in the process.”
“Truer words rarely spoken,” Kanpeki said, nodding approvingly. “Returning to the matter at hand, how significant would you consider the threat posed by this temple?”
“As you said, my lord, the Ruhmalites are vermin. They are an ongoing annoyance that should be eliminated, but I do not anticipate a significant military threat. They are not soldiers, merely fanatics. Still, it will resolve an unpleasant loose end and give the men an opportunity to indulge in their excesses. I feel we should make this a priority.”
“Your judgment is sufficient for my needs,” Kanpeki said, waving the matter away. “Deploy two detachments.”
“Two, my lord?”
“Two,” he insisted. “I want nothing to remain. “Shatter every stone. Kill everyone within. Leave nothing. They may be an annoyance, but we should make it absolutely clear that the Spider suffer nothing without reprisals.” He paused. “Who are your two best officers?”
“The two best officers who currently hold command would be Misaki and Kendo,” Kazuko answered at once. “If rank is not a factor, then I would say Ishibashi,” he continued, causing the junior officer at his side to stare at him, agape. “Misaki and Kendo are probably best not deployed together, however. They have something of a… rivalry.”
“They will do as commanded without incident or I will see them stripped of rank and placed upon the front lines of the undead legion,” Kanpeki said, his tone perfectly conversational. “Please feel free to mention that to them if you think it would serve as adequate motivation.” He thought for a moment, then added. “I will send Aya with them, I think. If they prove particularly disruptive, she can ensure their inclusion in the undead legion is of a more direct nature.”
“I will make the arrangements at once, my lord,” Kazuko bowed, turning to leave.
“And Kazuko?” Kanpeki called after him, bringing the other man to a halt. He gestured toward the commander’s adjutant. “Give Ishibashi is own company. Let us see how he handles it.”
* * * * *
Susumu Kuroko swept her robes with a flourish as she exited the temple, ensuring that any dust that might have accumulated during her devotions would not remain. It was only right for a proper samurai to show reverence for the Fortunes, of course, but it would never do for a lady of her station to appear unkempt, no matter the reason. A simple rule, but one often forgotten by those of lesser breeding. A quick glance assured her that her yojimbo were lurking at the edge of her peripheral vision, as she preferred. The evening hour was late, and it was time to return home for a little quiet contemplation before beginning a new day. The late evening and early morning were her favorite times, because the heat was not yet so unpleasant. In fact, a pleasant walk home in the evening air was one of her favorite times of day.
“May I join you?”
Kuroko turned, a demure smile upon her lips. The smile almost faltered when she saw the speaker, but her training was too absolute for such things. She bowed very deeply. “Good evening to you, Shibatsu-sama,” she said. “I would of course be honored to have you join me.”
Iweko Shibatsu smiled, his dark eyes inscrutable. Kuroko had only met the younger Imperial heir a handful of times, but she had never been able to read him properly, which was a rarity for her. It made him a fascinating individual, to be sure, but also a rather dangerous person. “I have not had occasion to speak to you since my return from the Colonies. I hope all is well with the Susumu.”
“My family is very well, thank you my lord,” she replied, gesturing in the direction she planned to travel. The two began walking side by side, enjoying the evening at a leisurely pace. “How have you found your return to the Empire?”
“Most curious,” Shibatsu admitted. “It seems my association with your clan has left many feeling… uneasy with me.”
“That is unfortunate, my lord,” Kuroko said, her expression concerned. “It is a shame that so many cannot show proper respect to your mother’s edict, even two decades after the fact. And it is an even greater tragedy that they would permit such prejudices to influence their opinion of something as important as an Imperial heir.”
Shibatsu’s smile remained. “You are gracious to say so, but I hardly thing the term ‘tragedy’ would apply. Is it unfortunate? Of course. But ultimately the opinions of most are irrelevant. Were I to give them a command, I have no doubt they would comply. Whether or not they enjoyed it is a problem for them to deal with, not me.”
Kuroko laughed lightly. “True enough, my lord. Nonetheless, those of us who know of your accomplishments feel the insult perhaps a bit more keenly.”
“You are kind to say so, but the last thing I desire is to see hardship for the Spider. Your clan has offered me every opportunity. What many regard as a sacrifice or a punishment, I regard as a convergence of destiny. I would have changed nothing about my training or the years spent in the Colonies. In fact, I am strongly considering returning to the Colonies in the near future.”
Kuroko believed she was successful in containing her surprise. “An interesting choice, my lord. May I ask why?”
“A number of reasons,” Shibatsu answered. “I believe I can address the majority of them by asking a question in return. What can you tell me of my brother?”
The question was surprising, and Kuroko took a moment to consider her answer. “You have not spoken to him?”
“Only at the celebration of my return,” Shibatsu replied. “I have not seen him since that time. I suspect he is not particularly keen on the notion of us spending time together. He has never been a great admirer of your clan.”
“I think we are all aware of that,” Kuroko said. “Seiken-sama spends the majority of his time outside the city. As you know, he has trained with all the Great Clans at one time or another, save of course for the Spider. He is well regarded by the various clans, and many court his favor. It goes without saying that he is highly coveted as a potential groom, but as of yet he has expressed no interest in marriage.”
“This is all information I am aware of,” Shibatsu said politely. “I would hope to receive an honest answer from the one clan that considers me a true heir to the throne.”
“Forgive me, my lord,” Kuroko said. “It can be difficult to distance myself from my normal tendencies in court. Your brother has a reputation for some degree of arrogance, and is extremely dismissive toward those he does not consider worthy of his attentions. There was something of a scandal some months ago when he was defeated in the finals of the Emerald Championship, but it was already an affair of note because he had insisted on participating in the first place, without the sponsorship of a clan.”
Shibatsu chuckled. “Even as a child, Seiken was always very assured of his skill as a swordsman.”
Kuroko was quiet for a moment. “Are you concerned about the possibility of a conflict between the two of you?” she finally asked, her voice low and confidential. “You know that the Spider will support you in any difficulties, my lord.”
“You have my gratitude, but I do not believe such a conflict is inevitable, and I have no interest in pursuing it. I think perhaps it is best for me to return to the Colonies. My only true allies, as you say, are among the Spider. And I fear my presence here may exacerbate others’ thoughts of a conflict between myself and my brother. I would avoid that, for the sake of my parents.”
“The Empress and the Consort are blessed to have such a devoted and considerate son,” Kuroko said. “I am sure they will miss you, once you have departed for the Colonies.”
Shibatsu smiled again. “We shall see.”
* * * * *
Sugihara flexed his wrists, testing the weight and position of the specialized blades he wore. They extended from his between the fingers of his clenched fists like the talons of a fearsome predator, which was only appropriate, for he prided himself on his naturalistic fighting style. He had traveled to the Colonies from his monastery more than a year previously, and had not had the opportunity to experience true battle alongside the massed regiments of the Spider. There had been a few skirmishes alongside the advance patrols, fighting against the deadly wildlife of this overrun nation, but this was the first true battle, and he was thrilled with the notion of true combat.
“Stand ready,” the order came from his commander, Daigotsu Misaki. The man was a mountain of muscle and menace, and even Sugihara found him somewhat intimidating. “We know not what foul sorceries these cultists might unleash, but make no mistake: I will not tolerate failure. We will earn more kills today than the weaklings in service to that fool Kendo, or I shall place this detachment on punishment detail for six months.”
The thought made Sugihara mildly queasy, but he gave no outward sign of his discomfort. Misaki was not a man who tolerated weakness, after all. “My lord,” one of the man called out, gesturing toward the Unicorn assembled off to the side. “What about them?”
“The Unicorn are permitted to take what captives they desire for questioning,” Misaki said, his voice controlled and even. “The orders were signed by commander Kazuko, and sealed with lord Kanpeki’s mark. I trust you understand what that means.”
Sugihara studied the Unicorn carefully. “What is that symbol?” he asked one of the other men, a veteran. “I do not recognize the unit designation.”
The older man glanced over at the Unicorn. “White Guard,” he said.
“What does that mean?” Sugihara asked.
“It means stay out of their way if you want to live,” the old man said, switching to the other side of the detachment.
“Bah,” Sugihara scoffed. His blades felt heavy in his hands. He needed blood upon them. Gaijin blood. Cultist blood. Today he would wade in a sea of his own making, and his soul would feel the first tugs of ascension. No Unicorn would stand in the way of it.
Sugihara shifted his weight from one foot to the other, and waited for the chance to kill his enemies.
* * * * *
It was late in the evening when Kanpeki returned to Steel Soul Dojo. His duties for the day had taken him far afield from the place he considered home, and he had found the fortifications he had inspected in exceptional condition. It pleased him to see the men who had sworn their lives to him excelling in their duties. Servants took his horse the moment he dismounted, and he entered the dojo’s large temple to pay tribute to his parents before retiring for the evening. Somehow it did not surprise him in the least to find Moto Rani there, as if waiting for him. “Moto-san,” he said flatly. “Has there been word from the assault on the Ruhmalite temple?”
“Not as of yet, Lord Spider,” the priestess said, her hollow tone sounding even more unnatural in the vast, empty expanse of the temple. “Even under ideal circumstances, it would be morning before riders could reach us. I would not expect anything before midday tomorrow.”
“I am not concerned,” he said with a shrug. “I was merely curious.”
“Of course,” she said, bowing her head respectfully. “I will leave you to your rituals, then.”
Kanpeki watched as she began to leave. “Would you care to join me?” he finally asked.
Rani stopped, but did not turn around. “I… am uncertain as to the nature of such an invitation.”
Kanpeki shrugged. “We both practice a form of religion that many in the Empire find distasteful. I would be interested in knowing more about your Lords of Death. I thought perhaps you might find worship of the Dark Lord of interest as well.”
She hesitated. “Worship of… your father, is prohibited to all save the Spider.”
“You would not be participating, would you? Merely observing.”
The priestess nodded slowly. “Very well. May I ask why you invited me?”
“You remind me of my mother, somewhat,” Kanpeki admitted.
Rani hesitated again. “I am uncertain whether that is a great compliment or a dreadful insult,” she finally said.
The Spider Champion chuckled. “It would depend upon my mother’s mood when I found her comparable to you, I imagine.” He gestured toward the altar, but froze when he saw a sudden shift in Rani’s expression. “What is it?” he demanded.
“Someone on the premises just died,” she hissed. “There. Another.”
Kanpeki’s senses were alert at once, and he replaced the mask he had removed upon entering the temple. “Something has breached the perimeter,” he said, resting his hand upon his weapon. “I shall summon the elite guard.”
“Too late,” Rani hissed, glancing into the long shadows around them.
“The woman,” a voice from the darkness whispered. “Kill her!”
Two men leapt from the shadows, one on each side of the priestess. They were clad in cultists wrappings, and Kanpeki instantly recognized the glint of their signature weapons. These were assassins.
“The Lords bless you!” Rani snarled, throwing up a hand and releasing an arcing blast of coruscating black energy toward one of the two. The man was struck in the chest and disappeared in a puff of what appeared to be ash. The other began some keening cry, bringing his blade down to end the Unicorn’s life, but Kanpeki was there, and plucked him from the air in one massive, impossibly powerful fist.
The cultist looked wild, insane. “Kali-ma!” he cried. “She who is death shall live again!”
“Pray she brings you with her,” Kanpeki spat. He hefted the man into the air and brought him down across his knee. The sound of the man’s back breaking was like a twig underfoot in the forest night. “The dojo!” he said, and ran from the temple. As soon as he crossed the threshold, he came to a complete stop, his face a mask of surprise and rage.
Steel Soul Dojo was burning.