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By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan

The City of the Lost, months ago
The Dark Lord of the Shadowlands arose from his meditation with a furrowed brow. He spent at least an hour every day in meditation at the Temple of the Ninth Kami. It was the means by which he attempted to divine with will of his lord, the dark god Fu Leng. Once, not so long ago, Fu Leng had clearly and demonstratively made his wishes known to the first among his students, but of late Daigotsu had been experiencing much more difficulty in achieving the connection that had once come so easily to him. The emptiness, the clarity that he felt when he reached out in communion and supplication disturbed him. He needed to understand the reason.

It was a reason he feared he already knew.

Daigotsu rose and walked slowly through the temple corridors. He had no destination in mind, he only hoped that walking would clear his head. He heard the familiar, plaintive cooing of his son as he walked. Daigotsu turned and offered his wife a smile. Her perfect features twisted up in a warm return as she held their child, the immobile form of Kayomasa, the infant's sworn protector, looming over them in the background. Daigotsu marveled that Shahai could seem so happy in the role of mother; it was not so long ago that he had only seen such joy on her features when she was inflicting agony on others. The name Lady of Blood had been well suited to her, and was part of the reason that he had come to love her. That he should love her now even more was odd, and yet he could not deny it.

Could it be the love of his wife and son that interfered with his communion with Fu Leng? Was it possible that his god was so wrathful that he would not accept his favored son placing others even above his plans to implement Fu Leng's Will? Had Daigotsu in fact done that, and placed them above his duty? He was not certain. He did not believe so, however. He considered the matter further as he walked through the massive temple doors and into the city beyond.

The City of the Lost was a thriving metropolis, rivaled only by the largest and most prosperous cities within the Empire to the north. Daigotsu stood and gazed upon his greatest creation for a long time, watching as Lost and the myriad of creatures that served them walked unimpeded among the streets. After some time, his attention was drawn by a curious spectacle: a horde of bakemono, the strong and vicious sort that served the Lost, carrying aloft some strange creature the likes of which he had never seen. An unidentified creature was nothing unusual, but an obviously dead one being borne in such a manner was strange. He smiled slightly in understanding as he saw the man following closely behind them, rubbing his hands in anticipation. "A new subject, Omoni?"

The goblin-man looked up in surprise, apparently so engrossed in his delight that he had not noticed. He bowed quickly. "Yes, Daigotsu-sama. It was found testing the boundaries of the city. It did not survive long, but it seems to possess some fascinating stealth abilities that&" his voice trailed off suddenly. "What troubles you, my lord?"

Daigotsu smiled wryly. "Other than Shahai, you know me perhaps better than anyone, old friend. Is it so obvious to others as well as to you?"

"I think not," Omoni observed, "but I know something troubles you. If your burden is one I can bear in your place, you only have to command me."

"I know," Daigotsu said. "This is not something that you can aid me with."

"Ah." The disappointment that radiated from the goblin-man was palpable. "If I were only wiser, perhaps I could offer you better counsel."

"Kyoden is gone," Daigotsu said quietly. "Kokujin is gone, and even if he were here, he is beyond even the notion of sanity. No, you are my last true friend. If there is any counsel I trust, it is yours."

"Then let me help you," Omoni said, gesturing for the goblins to continue toward his workshop. "Please, let me do something."

"Come inside," Daigotsu said with a nod. The two entered the temple and walked in silence for a while, strolling down one of the empty corridors. After some time, Daigotsu began to speak in a quiet voice. "I am having difficulty in reaching Fu Leng," he admitted. "I do not believe that he wishes to speak with me. I believe that I have lost his favor."

"Impossible," Omoni said at once. "You are his prophet, his disciple. He has not abandoned you."

"At the very least he is displeased," Daigotsu said. "And I cannot discern why."

"It makes little sense, Omoni said, his brow wrinkling in concentration. "You have achieved so much. You freed him from Meido, laid ruin to the capital city, and murdered an Empress. You defeated and drove out the blasphemer Iuchiban, and stole all that was his in the name of Fu Leng. You defeated the forces of Kyoso no Oni and recovered a lost artifact of Shinsei."

"All of which sounds impressive, but which has&" his voice trailed off as a thought occurred to him. "All of which has been done before," he said quietly. "Junzo, Yori, Tsume. They all sought to bring the Empire low, and all failed. I have sought to destroy Rokugan, and failed." He was quiet for a moment. "Thank you, Omoni."

The goblin-man frowned. "For what, master?"

But Daigotsu had already gone.

***

There were numerous temples within the City of the Lost. The greatest, of course, was the Temple of the Ninth Kami. The next largest was the Temple of Venom, where the Chuda family dwelt. The largest after that was somewhat a matter of debate, but most agreed that the temple where the mad monk Kokujin and his followers had studied was the largest, and it was simply called the Temple of Madness. Despite the strange and long-standing friendship between the monk and Daigotsu, the Dark Lord had never entered the temple until now.

The interior was dark despite the midday brightness outside. A scattering of lit candles was the only source of illumination within, and the thick, cloying scent of incense hung heavily in the air. Daigotsu glanced around at the sparse temple for a few moments. "I suppose the intimidation factor of this place would be quite impressive," he said, "if it were not that so many among the Lost are capable of seeing so well in the darkness."

"Perhaps the intent is not to intimidate. Perhaps we have no need."

Daigotsu turned to face the bulky figure standing deep in the shadows. Even with his supernatural vision, the man stayed somehow indistinct. "Is there a purpose, then?"

"You cannot find your true path when there are so many false paths distracting you." The man stepped forward into the candle's light. He was clad from neck to toe in thick robes of black and white, the mark of a warrior monk. His face was lined with age, but he showed no signs of weakness or infirmity. Indeed, he moved with the grace of a seasoned predator, and Daigotsu could sense the power he commanded. "In the darkness, the true path is the only path."

"Then perhaps I have come to the right place," Daigotsu said. "I have need of counsel, Roshungi. I need to find my path again."

"You are the Dark Lord of the Shadowlands," the monk said flatly. "Your path is clear."

"Is it?" He shook his head. "The path of the Shadowlands has never wavered, and has never succeeded in any permanent manner. Fu Leng is weary of near-successes and outright defeats. The Empire of Rokugan cannot be overwhelmed with sheer force. The Great Clans will never permit it. There has never been a Shadowlands assault that was not met with a united front, and I suspect there never will be."

"Then that is not the path." Roshungi's tone was one of utter simplicity.

"Agreed," Daigotsu said. "Once, I was content to permit their Empire to remain unmolested so long as it did not threaten mine. I had my periods of wrath, when I wished to hold the heart of an Emperor in my hands, but for the most part, I was content to offer Fu Leng the glory of his own Empire." The Dark Lord shook his head. "No more."

"What has changed your outlook?"

"The displeasure of my god, and the birth of my son," Daigotsu said. "I will offer a vast empire for my son to rule upon the day of his gempukku, and he will rule over it in the name of Fu Leng. This is the vision I have seen of the future, and I will see it made real, no matter the cost, no matter the time required."
"What is your new path?" Roshungi asked.

"I believe I know," he answered, "but there are questions yet to be asked. Once, I might have asked them of Kokujin, but that is no longer an option. I need someone at my side with clarity of vision. Are you that man, Roshungi?"

The monk bowed. "My brothers and I await only the chance to serve."

"I will require a vassal," Daigotsu said. "Someone to enact my will within the Empire. Someone pure of body, but not of spirit." He smiled. "Or, if you prefer, someone who has found that their path is, in fact, in the shadows."

Roshungi nodded. "I believe I have someone who may suit your needs, my lord."

***

The first samurai wielded a naginata, and was obviously greatly skilled in its use She swung it in a wide arc, bringing it down overhead for maximum effect. There was no point, however, because the traveler side-stepped the strike easily, stepping inside the weapon's effective radius and driving his palm sharply up to collide with the woman's chin. Her head snapped back with an audible crack, and she dropped to the ground dead, her eyes staring in unseeing wonder at the man who had killed her.

The traveler stared flatly at the other two samurai. "Walk away," he said. "There is no reason for us to fight one another."

"Blasphemer!" one shouted. He leapt forward wielding a pair of sai. He was fast and as athletic an opponent as the traveler had ever faced. It was not enough. The traveler avoided a flurry of blows, seven in rapid succession, then snapped the man's left arm like a twig. To his credit, he did not cry out, and immediately continued attacking with his right. The traveler swept his legs out from under him, grabbed one of the sai while the samurai was still in the air, and plunged it into his forehead the moment he struck the ground, pinning him there.

The third samurai drew his blades and assumed a defensive stance. He watched the traveler carefully, looking for any clues as to how to penetrate his defenses. The traveler gave him nothing, standing silently with his hands at his sides. The samurai finally moved forward in a rapid but defensive attack. At the last moment, the traveler leapt into the air and somersaulted over the man's head, landing behind him and taking up the fallen woman's naginata. As the samurai turned, the traveler cut his head from his shoulders. The man fell to the ground in two pieces, his weapons never leaving his hands.

"Well done."

The traveler turned to face the voice. Two men stood a respectable distance away, one clad in black and white, the other simply in black. The one in black had an ornate mask that covered his features. The traveler recognized both. "Thank you, sensei," he said with a short bow. "It is unfortunate that such measures were required."

"Whom did you kill?" the black-clad man asked.

"My enemies."

Roshungi smiled. "Michio has a taste for the literal, my lord," he said.

"Charming," the speaker replied. "You know who I am?"

"I do," Michio replied. "You are the Dark Lord Daigotsu."

"Why did you kill those men?"

Michio looked down at his opponents. "They learned of my studies with Roshungi." He turned to the older monk. "Everything you told me has come to pass, sensei. They do not understand. They do not wish to understand."

Daigotsu looked to Roshungi. "Would you care to explain?"

Roshungi looked at the younger man. "If you do not object?"

"Why hide from the truth?" Michio asked.

The old monk nodded. "Michio was left on the doorstep of a monastery as an infant. He was raised within the Brotherhood of Shinsei, but has always looked for new paths. Against the advice of his brothers, he traveled to the Shadowlands and studied at the monastery with me. He was with us for several months, until his meager supply of jade and the kiho he had learned from his brothers could no longer protect him. He wished to return to the Empire and experience it anew under the influence of his new perspective." He shook his head. "I warned him that they would not accept him."

"The Brotherhood no longer has a place for me," Michio said. "They cannot accept any perspective that deviates from what they understand of purity. And when the samurai learned of my travels, I was driven out of the monastery lest the brothers suffer the samurai's wrath."

"As I said," Roshungi said. "They do not understand. They do not wish to."

"Their paths are a lie," Michio said. There was no doubt in his voice. "I wish to follow the true path. That path lies with you, master."

"Ours is a difficult path," Daigotsu cautioned. "The Empire is full of selfishness and arrogance. They will never accept our path willingly. If we are to show them the way, they must suffer in ignorance first."

"Fools require a teacher," Michio said. "I am ready to fill that role."

***

The swamp extended in every direction as far as the eye could see. The fumes it produced were noxious beyond all comprehension, even when compared to the Shadowlands. The vast sea of mud churned as if alive, and a thick fog obscured the distant trees, making the marsh seem to exist outside of all else around it. "What is this place?" Daigotsu asked.

"It is called the Shadowlands Marsh of the Shinomen," Michio said. "I have always appreciated the name's simplicity."

"It is said that this marsh was created when a Shadowlands incursion threatened the egg clutches of the Naga," Roshungi said. "The Naga awakened long enough to destroy the oni that threatened them, then used some manner of pearl magic to contain their essence to this area. It is, for all intents and purposes, a fraction of the Shadowlands that exists within the Shinomen. It is not spoken of, and no one comes here. It is not safe for samurai."

"Of course not," Daigotsu said with a laugh. "This forest is dangerous, even to the likes of us. But this place& this is home."

"Home?" Michio asked.

"Some time ago, I sent an emissary to the Emperor to petition for Great Clan status," Daigotsu explained. "It was a ploy, nothing more. Something to confound and confuse, and perhaps to inspire ambitious fools to seek alliances with us for their own benefit. It was an amusement for me, in all honestly. It extended far enough for me to send Rekai to the Tomb of the Seven Thunders to aid the Emperor. The demons Kyoso sent were destroyed, we retrieved something from the tomb itself, and, if the Emperor had lived, he would have been forced to consider our petition." The Dark Lord shrugged. "We gained much, and lost nothing."

"You wish to renew your petition?" Roshungi asked. "I see little point with the throne empty."

"There will be no petition," Daigotsu proclaimed. "There will simply be a group of samurai and monks who swear allegiance to an unknown clan." He considered for a moment. "The Spider Clan. They will save the people of the Empire from threats that the other clans will not. They will gain allies in other courts, those whose ambitions would have led them to seek us out. They will spin a web of influence and information that will span an entire Empire. And by the time they recognize what has happened&"

"The spider's venom will have run its course," Roshungi said. "Subtle, but effective. What manner of threats shall these Spiders' combat?"

"Bandits," Daigotsu answered. "Pirates, those of Kokujin's minions he is willing to part with. And, eventually, the Great Clans themselves."

"Where will these bandits come from?"

Daigotsu smiled. "The Empire is full of sinners. We will find those willing to work for coin, and hire them to do what we wish. And then, they will find that they have much to learn about how money makes corpses of fools." He turned to Michio. "Are you ready to teach them such things, Michio?"

"I am," the monk said. "Only give me leave."

"You will have it," Daigotsu said. "Roshungi, we must return to the City of the Lost. There is much to be done. I want the city emptied, and all my followers within the forest before the summer's end. Michio, gather those who will follow you and begin training them. There will be more students than you alone can handle."

"Yes, master," both monks said with a bow.

"This," Daigotsu said, gesturing to the forest around him. "This is my true path."

He could feel the benevolence of Fu Leng once again.


 

 

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