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Bloodties - A Tale of Rokugan
by Rich Wulf

The Kuni Called this place The Teeth of the Serpent.

It was a place of whispered legend, a place that could not - should not - exist. Spires of jagged obsidian tore from the earth, stretching higher into the heavens than the tallest kyuden. They were geographic anomalies with no rhyme or reason. The wind screeched through their pitted surfaces, pure black and unreflective in the dim light of the deep Shadowlands. Clouds roiled in the sky above, impenetrable and blood red. The earth beneath her feet was brown, dead, and cracked. Here and there small, scuttling things moved quickly to escape the warm life she represented.

"Trite," Shahai mused, unimpressed. Shahai was an attractive woman. Her hair was drawn back in a fashionable style, held with an elaborate network of pins and strings of black pearls.

A long braid spilled down her back, looping about her throat twice. Her skin was pale and smooth; her powerful blood magic had shaved the edge off her forty years. She wore pale lavender robes, with a silver tanto tucked beneath her obi. A blood-red ruby was set upon the hilt, a symbol of her command of the Order of Bloodspeakers. A necklace of jade Witch Hunter amulets hung about her neck, both a trophy of her conquests and a protection against the Taint. Shahai was no stranger to corruption, but she saw no reason to hand over the remainder of her soul before she was prepared to do so.

So slight and exquisite a flower seemed out of place so deep in the Shadowlands. Surely she would be easy prey for the minions of darkness. The trail of slaughtered oni, ogres, and bakemono between here and the Carpenter Wall disproved that notion. For the last three days, the beasts had thought better of disturbing the Lady of Blood's journey. Shahai appreciated their newfound wisdom.

She pressed forward, pausing at the edge of a murky river. The flow was more like tar than water. Nothing could live there, nothing normal. A bloodshot yellow eye emerged from the muck, swiveled to consider her, and sank beneath the surface.

"The Black Finger," Shahai whispered. The jade Kuni amulets chimed gently as she took a tentative step forward.

"What's wrong, girl?" the voice called out from deep within her furoshiki sack. "Don't tell me that you are afraid?" A mad cackle drifted into the darkness.

"Of course I am not afraid, Grandfather," Shahai replied, still staring numbly at the surface of the water. "I have never been afraid."

"Take me out then!" the voice demanded. "I've been waiting a long time to see this!"

"Yes, Grandfather," she replied dutifully.

Shahai knelt, removed the bag from her shoulder, and carefully unfolded it. Heaps of food and supplies lay stacked neatly within, far more than should have fit within a satchel so small. It was a simple trick of gaijin magic, learned during her time with the Unicorn. Though her magic had taken a darker turn since those days, such simple spells still served her well on excursions such as these. Resting amid the rice cakes and clay water jugs sat an ivory skull, the kanji symbol of Void scrawled in blood upon its forehead. A jagged crack split the skull down the center, a bitter reminder of an encounter with the Unicorn Thunder two decades earlier. Shahai fondly smoothed one hand over the skull's pate. Gently, she took it in both hands, holding it against her chest so the empty sockets could stare out at the river. The skull's jaw rattled rapidly.

"Just as I read, just as the legends said!" Grandfather cackled. "Is it not wonderful, Shahai-chan?"

Shahai gazed out at the river once more, took in the Teeth of the Serpent, and shrugged. "I suppose, Grandfather," she said. "It is not what I expected. It all seems so... so blunt. So cheap. Enough to frighten a child, I suppose, but I had hoped for something more subtle."

"Yes, well, the Shadowlands caters to all tastes," Grandfather said. "The Black Finger River has no reason to be subtle. Simply step across it and you shall see why. Those who cross it lose their souls, cast forever into the Pit. Those who cross it join the Lost."

"And become raving madmen," Shahai sighed. "It seems like such a waste."

"Waste?" Grandfather said, baffled.

"The Shadowlands goes to such effort to corrupt men's minds, and then throws them away. If Fu Leng had an ounce of sense, he'd keep the mind that goes with the soul."

"Yes, well, he did lose, Shahai," Grandfather cackled. "Twice. Still, no reason not to be cautious."

"I doubt the Dark Lord has interest in my soul," Shahai mused. "What may be left of it..."

"Do not be so certain, Iuchi Shahai," whispered a woman's voice. "We always have room for another..."

Shahai looked about quickly, searching for the source of the voice. She saw nothing, only the river, the jagged Teeth of the Serpent, and the barren plains beyond. When Shahai had turned completely about she found herself facing another woman, standing inches away from where Shahai had been facing only a moment before. She was very tall, with unadorned black hair falling loose to her waist. She wore a kimono of pure white - the sort most only wore to funerary ceremonies. The sleeves of her robes were dyed a dark brownish-red. Her beauty was indescribable, dark eyes painted with midnight purple, blood-red lips, skin paler even than Shahai's own.

"Who are you?" Shahai demanded.

"I am the daughter of the Kami," she said. "I am what you aspire to be. I am power. I am death. I am the Dark Daughter of Fu Leng, and this is my domain. Have you come to offer me fealty?"

"Hardly," Shahai said boldly. "I did not come to join the ranks of the chained."

"Chained?" the Daughter replied, looking at Shahai curiously. "Why do you say that we are chained? Your order bears my fathers Taint as well, though you resist it."

"Bloodspeakers are no one's slaves," she replied. "We use maho because the power suits us, but we are not Lost like you. We are not mindless minions like Junzo and Yori. We are free."

"If it pleases you to think so, luchi Shahai," the Dark Daughter said. She stepped closer, bowing slightly to peer into the smaller woman's eyes. Her gaze was piercing, unsettling, and unnatural. "Why have you come here?"

"I have come seeking a member of my order," she replied. "A man, a bit younger than myself. His name is Daigotsu. I have searched for him for eight years."

"A dangerous quest," the Dark Daughter said. "I was not aware you Bloodspeakers held such loyalty for one another. It seems strange, considering how long you have left your master luchiban to languish in a tomb of eternal death."

"He languishes only because the keys are hidden," Shahai answered. "At least I did not release my master only to see a ronin slaughter him, and a mad Crab run off with his head."

The Dark Daughter's eyes narrowed. "You tempt my wrath, luchi Shahai. This is my domain." She held her hands out to either side, displaying long fingernails the same featureless black as the Teeth of the Serpent.

Shahai whispered something indecipherable under her breath.

"What was that?" the Dark Daughter snapped, talons clicking against one another.

"I am not luchi," Shahai said, returning the challenge. "Call me by that pathetic name again and you will tempt my wrath, Dark Daughter."

The two stared at one another for several moments, hardly a foot of space separating them. Shahai had heard the legends of the Dark Daughter. It was said she was akutenshi, a dark servant of Jigoku. It was said that she was the corrupted daughter of the Crane Thunder, lost centuries ago to the power of Fu Leng. It was said that she was death incarnate. Shahai did not care. She decided years ago she would not live in fear, and even this creature of nightmare would not change that. She would rather die than surrender.

The Dark Daughter smiled. "You are as bold as he promised," the Dark Daughter laughed, folding her hands in her bloodstained sleeves again.

"As who promised?"

"The one you seek, of course," the Dark Daughter answered. "Daigotsu. I shall take you to him."

* * *

For three hours the Dark Daughter led Shahai across the cracked landscape of the Shadowlands. At last they arrived at a most unlikely destination. In the shadows of a darkened box canyon, they came upon a large temple built of blackened timbers and shingled with gold.

"Did the Crab live here once?" Shahai asked, surprised to see the structure. "I did not think their domain ever extended so deep into the Shadowlands."

"No," the Dark Daughter said. "The Hida have never seen this."

"Surely the bakemono could not have built this? Or the Nezumi?"

"Surely not," was all the Dark Daughter would answer.

They continued on toward the temple.

Shahai approached the canyon carefully, ready for any sign of ambush. At her side, the Dark Daughter walked with no outward expression of concern. Why would she have any? If she was truly the daughter of a Kami as she claimed, even the Dark Kami, what could possibly threaten her?

"What indeed?" Shahai mused to herself.

"Do you hear that, Shahai-chan?" Grandfather whispered from within Shahai's furoshiki.

Shahai shook her head; she heard nothing, but she knew well when to trust in Grandfather's instincts. As she drew closer, she began to hear a dull chant. It seemed almost as if multiple voices were chanting a sutra.

"You worship the Tao here?" Shahai asked, sneering in disgust.

"Some do, though their numbers were few, the Brotherhood fought more fiercely than anyone at Volturnum... many of Shinsei's children joined our number. They have built these temples throughout the dark lands, and continue their meditations. Mostly out of habit, I suppose."

"And you allow it?"

"I allow nothing. I merely do not care," the Dark Daughter said with a shrug. "Their souls belong to Jigoku. Their Tao is a twisted aberration of the Shinsei's teachings. Father would approve."

As they approached, Shahai noticed movement in the canyon itself. Dozens of men and women knelt in silent prayer before the Temple. Most were covered with scars, sores, or other manifestations of the Taint. Some had skin as pale and blue as corpses. Some were not misshapen at all, but possessed an unearthly beauty similar to the Dark Daughter's. As they continued to approach, two men on a skeletal horses galloped out to meet them.

Shahai frowned. "I had been led to believe there were no more Dark Moto."

The Dark Daughter smirked. "Moto Tsume and his brother are dead and their curse lifted, this is true," she answered, "but any family who thinks their line pure after the Battle of Oblivion's Gate is a fool. See for yourself, Shahai. I believe one of these is your kin."

As the two men approached, Shahai realized that she did recognize them. One she knew only from his mon - Moto Yesugai, a worthless gaijin who followed the usurper Gaheris from the Burning Sands. His face was hardly recognizable, skin pulled tight about his bones like a living skeleton. The other was more familiar - Shahai's cousin, luchi Katta. He had not aged a day in twenty years, though his eyes had become pits of darkness and his skin glowed like witchfire. The two Unicorn reined in their skeletal mounts and paused to study their visitors. When Katta recognized Shahai, he smiled broadly.

"I was wondering when you would arrive, cousin," he said, his voice echoing as if through a deep cave. "My lord has been long awaiting your arrival."

Shahai said nothing at first, hoping to show no surprise. The Katta she had known had been a weak-willed fool, all too ready to bow and caper to the tenets of bushido. This was not the same man. She could sense his strength, his power, his raw corruption. Shahai did not know who Katta's new lord was, but if he could bring about such change in a waste of flesh like Katta then he was the sort of man she wanted to meet.

"Who is your lord?" Shahai asked finally.

"Daigotsu," Katta said. "The man you seek, and who seeks you."

Shahai's mouth closed with a click.

"Are you certain this is your cousin?" Yesugai asked, his own voice a leathery hiss. "I thought you said she n

* * *

Shahai stared about the temple grounds in awe. All about her, she saw men and women of Rokugan, dressed in the colors of every Great Clan. She even noted a Hare and a handful of Monkey bushi. All were Tainted, all Lost to the power of Fu Leng. Yet these were not the Shadowlands madmen she had seen in the past. Their eyes burned with intelligence. Their will was their own.

"All of these were lost at Volturnum?" Shahai asked Katta.

"Most," Katta said, pushing open the heavy doors of the temple with one hand. "Some were taken since, mostly Crab and Mantis. We are always recruiting. A handful..." Katta regarded her with a devilish grin, "...were born here. If we have time later, I shall introduce you to my sons."

The trio entered the temple. A large shrine dominated the entry chamber, with a thirty-foot statue depicting a tall, beautiful man with hair of midnight black. In his hands, he crushed a writhing snake. Beneath one foot, he cracked the shell of a crab. An elderly monk knelt before the statue, burning incense as he chanted twisted sutra. He peered up as the three entered. Two jagged, criss-cross scars marked where the old monk's eyes had once been.

"Welcome to the Temple of the Ninth Kami," the old monk said in a pleasant voice. He rose and bowed deeply. "I shall return presently with the master." He shuffled off across the temple, making not a sound as he moved.

"Brother Hanoshi sought enlightenment in the Tao for years," Katta said. "When he discovered it in the Shadowlands, he gouged out his own eyes. I suppose some people are more nostalgic than others."

"Apparently," Shahai answered.

The sound of heavy footsteps soon approached from across the temple, and Shahai turned to face the new arrivals. One was a tall man in black obsidian armor, face entirely hidden beneath a black mempo. The other was a tall man with long white hair, braided exquisitely into a complex topknot. He wore a kimono of black and silver, padded here and there with the light battle armor of a shugenja. His handsome young face was tinged eternally with amusement, and he bowed deeply when he saw Shahai. He had changed much, but she recognized him.

"Daigotsu-san," she said, returning his bow.

"Shahai-san," he replied. "I have been waiting for you." His obsidian guardian vanished into the shadows without a word of introduction. "Katta-san, you may go," Daigotsu said. "Dark Daughter, remain. This discussion may be of interest to you." :

The Dark Daughter of Fu Leng nodded in assent. Iuchi Katta bowed and departed, closing the temple doors with a heavy thud.

"Daigotsu, you have much to explain," Shahai said after the doors had closed. "You disappeared from the order, leaving no trace. I scoured Rokugan for years, seeking any sign of your passing. The blood rites revealed to me that you journeyed to the heart of the Shadowlands, and here I find you in the heart of a village of Lost, who revere you as their lord. What is happening?"

"It is as they say," Daigotsu replied simply. "I am their lord." ~

Shahai's eyes narrowed. "You wear no jade,'~she observed. "Are you a fool? This deep in the ~ Shadowlands, with no jade, your soul may already be Lost."

"Much as these men and women are Lost, I imagine," Daigotsu said. "These are not the Shadowlands madmen of old. They are samurai. The Shadowlands have changed, adapted. Hellish Jigoku has recognized the ways of its enemy. Only through organization can we truly destroy the Empire. Only by becoming a reflection of Rokugan may we tear the clans apart. What you see here is the beginning of the new way. Twenty miles from here, the Lost have built a city, a palace to rival Otosan Uchi's. Miles from here, our Kaiu engineers have begun construction on a wall to defend us from the incursions of the meddlesome Hiruma. Soon we will be a dark reflection of Rokugan, but stronger. I shall lead the Shadowlands to a new era of greatness."

"Daigotsu, listen to me," Shahai said. "We must leave this place. Return to the order."

"Return to hiding?" he said with a laugh. "Return to our delusions of vengeance upon a dead dynasty? No, Shahai. This is our time. This is our vengeance. You know what I am. You know who I am, or you would not have dared so much to retrieve me. Surely in your heart you must suspect that this is what was meant to be. I am the new lord of the Shadowlands."

"And where does that leave the Bloodspeakers?" Shahai asked. "Those who raised you, taught you your magic? Where does that leave me?"

"At my side, dear sister," Daigotsu replied, extending one hand toward her. "Darkness recognizes its own. Through dark times and bright, the Bloodspeakers have survived. They have grown. They have triumphed. Like those lost at Volturnum, they are an example of what the Shadowlands could become. You are an example of what they could become. You can rule the Shadowlands, Shahai, second only to myself and the Dark Daughter."

At Shahai's side, the Dark Daughter smiled viciously.

"And if I do not wish to join you?" Shahai said.

"Then the Dark Daughter will send you to Jigoku," Daigotsu said. The words held no rancor, or any emotion whatsoever. They were not a threat, but a simple statement of what would be. The Dark Daughter extended her hands from her sleeves once more, revealing her long black fingernails. Daigotsu turned his back on both women as he strode quietly up the steps to study the statue of Fu Leng.

Shahai turned to face the Dark Daughter, shook her head slightly, and grinned.

"Are you prepared to die, Bloodspeaker?" the Dark Daughter asked.

"I am always prepared to die," Shahai said. "Are you?"

Shahai snapped one hand backward quickly. The Dark Daughter's eyes widened as a plume of red energy suddenly lanced from her heart to Shahai's outstretched hand. The Daughter shrieked and extended her claws, but Shahai extended her other hand. Another pulse of red energy exploded from the Daughter's chest, sending seizures throughout her body. The ancient creature of darkness collapsed, helpless, on the floor.

"Well done, Shahai-chan!" Grandfather cackled from her satchel.

Across the temple, Daigotsu seated himself on the stairs. He watched the exchange with mild interest.

"What..." the Dark Daughter groaned, shivering as she attempted to control her body. "What have you done to me?"

"The incantation is subtle, but powerful,', Shahai said, circling the Dark Daughter. The twin streams of power continued to siphon blood and strength from Shahai's fallen opponent. "Slow in application, but nearly impossible to detect. Once it takes effect, there is little that can be done to stop it. You say your soul belongs to Jigoku? You are wrong. Your soul is mine, Dark Daughter."

"How?" the Dark Daughter gasped.

"I've been weaving this spell since shortly after we met," Shahai said. "While you were still preening over your superiority, I decided in that moment that you had to die. If you'd simply killed me instead of threatening me like the villain from a poor Scorpion melodrama, then perhaps you would have had a chance. Not any longer."

"No!" the Dark Daughter screamed. "I am immortal! You cannot do this!"

"You are mortal enough, I think," Shahai said. "And now your power is mine."

"Lord Daigotsu!" the Dark Daughter screamed. "Save me!"

"Why should I?" Daigotsu said. "You failed. You failed your father, and now you have failed me. Perhaps it is time for Shahai to assume your position."

"I will be no one's minion, Daigotsu," Shahai snarled, tightening her fists about the coils of blood. "We will be equals, or we will be enemies. I do not care what power you think you wield, or how many minions you have at your disposal. I will be no one's slave."

"Excellent," Daigotsu replied with a smile. "I would have it no other way, Shahai-san. Or should I say Dark Daughter? I think the name fits you."

"Whatever," Shahai said, attention still focused upon her spell and her victim.

The young man rose, dusting off his black kimono with one hand. Behind him, the obsidian yojimbo formed from nothing and waited to attend its master's wishes. "When you're finished with her, attend me in the rear garden," Daigotsu said. "Brother Hanoshi will show you the way. We have much to discuss, and an Empire to conquer. In the meantime," Daigotsu smiled again, "enjoy yourself."

The Lord of the Shadowlands turned and exited the chamber. Shahai laughed as she focused the spell once more, drawing another scream of pain from the dying spawn of Fu Leng.



Kaze no Shiro Return

Togashi will return!