Daigotsu Kanpeki sat in prayer alone in the largest temple ever built in honor of his father. He was surrounded by the corpses of those who disobeyed and would not accept this new age of corruption. He had not ordered all of his vassals to accept the gifts of Jigoku, but all of them were obligated to assist against the Empire. A few samurai had willingly given their lives as tribute, hoping their blood would serve their master in death. After his return to the Colonies, Kanpeki had declared a new age for the Spider, one in which they would claim their place in the Empire through blood and death. The first step in Kanpeki's plan was for himself to also take up the Taint. It was his birthright, part of the lineage and greatness of both of his parents.
Which made his present inability to acquire it even more frustrating.
The puddles of blood on the temple floor were testament to Kanpeki's vigorous attempts. He had killed them all with his bare hands and uttered every prayer he knew. He prayed to his father Daigotsu, master of Jigoku who took the place of the Kami Fu Leng a generation before. He prayed to his mother Shahai, the Dark Fortune of Blood. And yet he felt no different, no stronger than he had been before. Kanpeki stared down at the porcelain mask he held in his hand, which had once belonged to his father. Daigotsu’s soul had been bound to an oni's. The Dark Lord wore this mask his whole life to remind others of his nature. Yet Kanpeki had been shielded from the Taint, to maintain his place as Spider Clan Champion – a position others now threatened to take away.
"Give me your blessing, father. Let me bring ruin." Kanpeki's prayer remained unanswered. His father’s statue gazed down without expression. Could he have proven himself unworthy? Had the time he spent holding back Jigoku’s blessing have left him unfit for its touch? Was he cursed in some way? To forever be unable to follow the path of his parents, his father, his lord?
The doors of the temple opened behind him. Kanpeki turned with murder in his eyes. His expression softened as he recognized the only person he could bear talking to right now.
“Machiko-chan,” Kanpeki said, his tone unusually caring. “Should you be walking so soon?”
“Don't worry, husband,” Machiko knelt by his side, carefully avoiding the corpses. “I am recovering well. Your daughter was eager to come into this world. I am eager to return to it.”
“Our daughter,” Kanpeki looked up at the statue of Daigotsu. “I had once hoped for her to be a Champion. But that has been taken away from her.”
“Then instead she will be an Empress,” Machiko answered.
“Yes,” Kanpeki’s narrowed. “I am tired of waiting in the shadows of this Empire. I will carve my way to the Throne anyway I must.”
“I was taught that blood is a vessel for dark magics because it is a sacred substance, the product of mankind's heavenly origin. It is truly a sacrifice for it to be shed. But these,” Machiko waved at the corpses surrounding them, “are not sacred to you. You know what you have to do. You need to sacrifice the blood of the one you hold in highest regard.”
“No,” Kanpeki immediately answered.
“I am no warrior,” Machiko said as she drew forth her knife. “There will be no room for me in the times to come, as you fight your way to the throne. I gave you an heir. Now, let me give you the means to seize your destiny.”
Kanpeki stared at Machiko in silence. She met his gaze unwaveringly. He had always respected her strength. Their marriage had been a political arrangement, a chance for both to consolidate their standing. She became the wife of a Champion. He created ties between his line and the Imperial Families. But Kanpeki could not deny that he genuinely loved her. She was the only source of positive emotion in his life. She was his link to his own humanity.
And that's why she had to die.
To her credit, Machiko didn't flinch as Kanpeki plunged the knife in her throat. Blood gushed as he pulled it away, and she fell onto the temple floor.
Kanpeki felt the rising agony and turned it over before it could weigh him down. Sadness transformed into rage. He prayed again. He looked up to his father and this time did not ask for his blessing.
He demanded it.
The fire in his heart became an inferno. Kanpeki felt it spread through his veins, his muscles, his entire body. He clenched his fists as the Taint remolded him, transformed him into an inhuman weapon every fiber of his being dedicated to the destruction of others. The pain was incredible, but only fueled his rage further. Power flooded through Kanpeki's form, filling him with a strength he had never dreamt of.
"Father!" he shouted. "I will strike them down in your name, father!"
Kanpeki had knelt as a man. He rose up as a monster.
He looked down at his fallen wife. He remembered everything about her, but all love was gone. There was only hate and anger at the Empire which had forced him to take her life. He walked to the temple doors ignoring the sickening crunch of the dead bodies under his feet. He stepped out, flanked by statues of his parents. Outside, hundreds of samurai awaited, in the warm air of the Colonies. They prostrated themselves as their lord emerged from the temple.
“The blessings of Jigoku now run through my veins,” Kanpeki’s powerful voice reached them all. “This is the first step on the road which will lead to the throne. Come with me and usher a new age upon Rokugan. The age of Strength. The age of the Spider.”
As the samurai cheered their lord and prepared to march, a spider scuttled away in the jungle, hunting for a new prey.
Susumu Hanae sat in the silence of her room in the Imperial Palace of Toshi Ranbo. She was preparing to receive guests for a casual tea. Although such an occurrence didn't call for the minutiae of a full tea ceremony, etiquette demanded a minimum of preparation. Despite her advanced age, Hanae’s hands were steady with the cups. As the Imperial Scribe, she taken great care of her hands throughout her whole life. They were her livelihood and without them, without her, the Spider would lose one of their few positions of Imperial power. Besides, she enjoyed preparing tea for her guests herself. A combination of status and age excused a great many things in the view of other samurai, so she was allowed this one particular habit.
Hanae’s guests arrived and she favored them with a smile. They were both members of the Susumu Family and also past the age of retirement, if was only by a few years. The man was tall with long, flowing black hair, which she knew he dyed to conceal signs of gray. The woman was small and elegant and walked with the grace of a dancer.
“Masumi-san, Tatsuko-san,” Hanae offered a short bow. “Please, sit. I've been looking forward to speaking with you.
“You honor us, Hanae-sama,” Susumu Masumi said as they both took their seats. “It is always a pleasure to spend time in your company.”
“Particularly when tea is involved,” Susumu Tatsuko added. “Is this Yanagi Mura I smell?”
“You are correct, my dear. I thought you would like to be reminded of our time spent together in Unicorn lands.”
“I remember Shiro Ide,” Masumi said as he turned to look at Tatsuko. “Your shamisen performance was the greatest I have ever had the privilege to hear, and yet you eclipsed your own music.”
“A lot of courtiers wondered why the Imperial Matchmaker had chosen for himself to be married within the ranks of his own Clan, rather than find a more advantageous match. As if I would have allowed that to happen,” Tatsuko said, covering her smile with her fan.
“How are your children? I haven't seen young Sakura in so long.”
“She is a blessing,” Masumi said. “Such a well-behaved child. She will be a wonderful courtier.”
“And Jiro has started to speak,” Tatsuko added. “Only a few words, but he's learning quickly.”
“I'm delighted to hear,” Hanae answered. “I never had time for a family of my own. A fault Lady Kuroko kindly glossed over. But regret is a sin and I have none. I've lived a good life.”
“So did we,” Masumi nodded. “We had considered retirement, but with the recent developments...”
“You mean our lord's decision to go to war against the Empire while the Emperor's brother takes his place as the Champion of a greatly reduced Clan,” Hanae said flatly and sipped her tea.
“Yes. That is what I was referring to,” Masumi answered with the carefully controlled tone of an expert courtier.
“How many of us remain?” Hanae asked the couple.
“Not many,” Tatsuko closed her fan. “All in our Family, plus a handful of uncorrupted Daigotsu samurai. I hear one of the Gyushi might join us. Even so, we would be less than a hundred to serve Shibatsu-sama.”
“He has given up the Iweko name?” Hanae chuckled. “How oddly traditional. But one has to respect his efforts to make his own destiny. Without his support, we would probably be dead.”
“Or ruined,” Tatsuko added with a small shrug. “The Daigotsu Family didn't take kindly to the Emperor's edict. Reports have reached us from the Colonies of arson, violence, and murders. Our holdings there are almost entirely destroyed. Without Shibatsu-sama's personal fortune, we would have already run into severe difficulties.”
“I'm sure they are covering their tracks, as well as unleashing a lot of pent-up rage. What about the monks?”
“The monks will follow their own path, as always,” Masumi said with a barely repressed scowl.
“So that is it then,” Hanae said. “We serve Shibatsu as the only official members of the Spider Clan, waiting for one side or the other to win and potentially destroy us all.”
“We've made our peace with that,” Tatsuko said with a nod from her husband. “But we are worried about our children. It's hard to piece out what will become of them.”
“It's quite the quandary, I agree,” Hanae said as she sipped more tea. “We could arrange for them to be married into other Clans, but with our low numbers, our new Champion might not allow it. And if other parents followed your example, then our Clan could disappear within a generation of its inception, something I find unacceptable. ”
“But if they remain within our Family, their future is very much in doubt,” Masumi said with a dour glance at his teacup.
“Unless, as is our tradition, they serve two lords,” Hanae suggested. The couple exchanged a glance before she continued. “Yes, I still have contacts in the Daigotsu Family. Although we have publicly distanced ourselves from them, it would be foolish to break all contacts.”
“And if Lord Kanpeki achieves his aims...” Masumi began.
“... then we will still be here to serve him,” Tatsuko finished.
“Exactly,” Hanae smiled. “Patience has always served our family well, and I would recommend it in this situation as well. More tea?”
In a corner of the room, a small spider spun a web, patiently waiting for its prey.
Rain fell heavy on a small monastery just outside of the Shinomen forest, and the monks assembled outside. It was a summer rain, and fell straight upon the land, with no wind to alleviate the heat. The monks stood drenched in two groups, staring at each other. One included twenty men and women, the gate of the monastery to their back. The other was closer to fifty and had just arrived. All were heavily armored and wore black and white colors, telltale signs of fealty to the Spider Clan.
A woman emerged from the ranks of the fifty new arrivals. Unlike them, she wore her long hair loose and her kimono revealed much of her extensively tattooed skin. She seemed unbothered by the rain.
“Who’s in charge of this monastery?” She asked to the assembled locals.
“I am,” a young man stepped forward. He wore a heavy bisento and metal claws extended from his armor, but he was otherwise indistinguishable from his companions, face wrapped in a white scarf. “My name is Sora.”
“Kokujin Kuchika,” the woman answered with a short bow. “I come at the behest of our
Champion. We are gathering the whole Order, as our Clan prepares to go to war.”
“Our order?” Sora scoffed. “You are not one of us, Kokujin.”
Kuchika’s eyes narrowed. “Watch your words, Sora-san. Your orders are to gather your men and follow us. As you can see, other monasteries have already joined me.”
“You do not control me,” Sora answered, planting his bisento into the muddy ground in defiance. “You haven’t earned my fealty. And Kanpeki lost it when he gave it to the Taint. The path of Shourido is not one of servitude, but of accomplishment.”
“You dare insult the son of the Dark Lord!” Kuchika roared. “Is your life so miserable that you would beg me to free you from its burden?”
“Try,” Sora said as he picked up his bisento and took up a defensive position, while his disciples did the same. “Dragon-blooded scum.”
Kuchika's scream of rage was the only signal her troops needed to attack. She took a deep breath and unleashed a gout of black fire upon Sora. He leaped forward over the flames, and landed within reach of Kuchika. Sora launched into a series of quick strikes, but Kuchika parried them all. The skin of her hands had turned into a scaly green hard enough to deflect metal. Sora cursed as Kuchika slipped within his reach. He dropped his bisento to defend against her attacks. She kicked and punched him and with each blow Sora felt her tremendous strength despite the layers of metal and cloth protecting him. He tried to counterattack but she ducked beneath his punch. Kuchika grabbed him by the shoulder and neck. She forced him to kneel. As he struggled to break free he saw her mouth distort to reveal oversized fangs dripping with poison.
In a last effort to save his life, Sora focused his elemental air into his legs and leapt with tremendous power. Startled, Kuchika fell back onto the muddy ground. Her surprise only grew when she looked up and saw Sora hadn't come down. His feet were supported by the very air.
“How?” she snarled as she got back to her feet.
“Groveling at the feet of Jigoku's lords isn't the only way to acquire power,” Sora told her from above. “Before he died Omigawa passed on the knowledge he acquired from Yunmen, the Whisper. We have learned a lot from the Brotherhood.”
“You might have learned well. The rest of your kind didn't, obviously,” Kuchika said. Looking below him, Sora realized she was right. His disciples had fallen, overwhelmed by their enemy's stronger numbers and dark powers. Only he remained.
“Then they were not worthy. Goodbye, Kokujin Kuchika. I shall encounter you again, when you no longer need to borrow the strength of others.”
Before Kuchika could answer, Sora disappeared from sight. There was nothing left to look at but the heavy clouds and the pouring rain.
Kuchika's frustration was amplified when she heard one of Sora's monks laughing, despite crippling wounds which had left him lying on the ground. She immediately walked to him and cut her palm on his bisento, then put her hand over his mouth. A red light emerged from Kuchika's hand and entered the monk's throat, muffling his scream. When she pulled her hand back, the monk's wounds had healed, and his laughter had stopped. He rose to his feet and picked up his weapon, eyes burning with a silent loyalty to his new mistress.
“Why stand alone when it is not required?” Kuchika said. “Kill the rest. Burn down the monastery. We have others to visit.”
Flames engulfed the small building, burning hot despite the rain. A spider devoured another in the branches of a nearby tree, making a meal out of its smaller kind.
Deep within the Shadowlands, in the chain of mountains bordering the Sea of the Jade Sun, volcanic activity is frequent. It adds to the danger of the place and creates many caves and tunnels which are used by the local creatures as dens and nests. A few of the caves have been co-opted by more refined individuals: the maho-tsukai who called themselves the Chuda Family.
It was in one such cave that Chuda Teraiko operated. Past the rocky entrance, one would have been excused to think they were in a regular Rokugani house. All the comforts of a small home, from sword racks to altars to honored ancestors, were present. But there were other worrying signs that this house was more than a simple abode. The faint odor of blood always permeated the air. Strange glyphs painted near the entrance offered better protection than any stone wall. In the deepest room of her home, Teraiko read a scroll by candlelight when she noticed a small but distinctive deepening of the shadows around her.
“Your kind never comes announced, does it?” Teraiko said as she turned around. Opposite her stood a woman wearing traditional Phoenix shugenja clothing, red ribbons and feathers entangled in her hair. But where her face should have been found, only egg-smooth skin could be seen. Somehow, it didn't prevent the creature from speaking.
“I am Ninube Kaede. I come bearing news from Daigotsu Kanpeki.”
“Kaede? Just like...” Teraiko stopped in the middle of her sentence as Kaede's hair raised about her head, like serpents readying themselves for the strike.
“Do not speak the name of the usurper in my presence!” Kaede hissed, despite her lack of lips. Her entire form exuded violence and insane aggression as if the comparison were a uncontrollable trigger. “I am the true child of Isawa Ninube! I should have been the one. Instead, that mortal took my place, shielded by our father's magic. And now she has returned to Tengoku. She thinks herself safe, but I will find a way to get to her and when I do...”
“You said you had news from Kanpeki-sama?” Teraiko said, interrupting Kaede's mad rant.
“I... I do, indeed.” Kaede's hair returned to normal and she straightened her kimono. Her voice became empty once more. “Who among you leads the Chuda?”
“No one,” Teraiko shrugged. “Many of us have been here in the Shadowlands for over a generation. There is little need for a daimyo here. Mishime disappeared years ago and no one has replaced him since.”
“But you are in contact with the rest of your kind, yes?” Kaede asked with the slightest hint of frustration in her voice.
“I am indeed,” Teraiko nodded. “Many of us live in the mountains. We loosely keep in touch, offering favors and assistance in exchange for trade secrets. There are too many things hungry for our flesh for us to fight against one another, although betrayal is inevitable in the long run.”
“This will have to change in the future,” Kaede said as she shook inclined her head, like a disapproving parent. “Lord Kanpeki will hardly tolerate betrayal.”
“Does it mean we are to be part of the Spider once again? You know we cannot operate in the open,” Teraiko answered. “We would be vulnerable to being discovered by the Empire.”
“This won't be a problem,” Kaede shook her head. “Lord Kanpeki is dismantling his operations base in the Colonies and preparing to wage war against the Empire. He wants the Chuda at his side to provide him with weapons of war when the time comes. He offers you his patronage, but he will only do so once.”
Teraiko's smile grew wider. “I accept it, as most of my brethren will, I imagine. We have uncovered many secrets during our time in isolation. Creatures never seen in the Empire, ready to answer our commands. They will be at Kanpeki-sama's service on just one condition.”
“And what is that?” Kaede asked, without any real curiosity in her voice.
“Blood,” Teraiko answered. “Lots and lots of human blood, particularly untainted blood. Reserves are thin this deep in the Shadowlands, apart from the occasional Hiruma scout – and those are a dangerous prey.”
“You will have your blood,” Kaede nodded. “The war coming will be greater than any seen before. The Empire will pay for its slight to our kind. If you can provide the assistance you promise, then it will be a golden age for the Chuda. If you desert the son of Daigotsu, or betray him in any fashion... remember how easy it was for me to get past your wards.”
“Understood,” Teraiko nodded. “What are our orders?”
“Tell the rest of your family the time has come to serve Lord Kanpeki. Kill those who refuse. If you can't, keep their names in mind for the next time I come to see you. Then gather your possessions and erase traces of your presence. You will soon receive more orders.”
“It will be done. If I can ask once question,” Teraiko added, “Why do you serve Kanpeki-sama? I've never heard of the Ninube Family being particularly devoted to the Dark Lord.”
“I am the Ninube Family. Every other who bears this name is but an extension of my very being. They will obey me in every circumstance. As for myself, I intend to stand by Daigotsu's son as he topples the Empire. Once he does, Heaven is sure to follow.”
As Ninube Kaede disappeared into the darkness, Chuda Teraiko found herself questioning the wisdom of allying her family with such creatures. The spawn of darkness was obviously quite mad and whether what she said regarding herself was true or not was uncertain. But Teraiko had tricks of her own. With a smile, she started packing her scrolls and vials.
In the Shadowlands, spiders the size of a small house can sometimes be seen, spinning gigantic webs. In one such web near Teraiko's cavern, amid its gigantic brethren, sat a mundane one, unnoticed by all.
In the Empire, there are many villages which exist as little more than wayside stops along Imperial roads. An inn, a stable, and a couple of other shops and farmers to support them are enough to form a community, as the road brings travelers all year round. Sunshine Village is one such place, a simple hamlet in the lands of the Asahina Family. In a room at the local inn, avoiding the warm afternoon sun was a samurai who called himself Mirumoto Shigeri. This was only a pseudonym, one which hid the true nature of Goju Yurishi. He enjoyed the irony of adopting the identity of a Dragon samurai, the Clan which meant to keep an eye on Spider activity and knew perhaps more than any save the Scorpion on the Lying Darkness. Many samurai of those two Clans had fallen to the Lying Darkness in their struggles to defeat it, and had reinforced it in turn, making their relationship a complicated one. Yurishi wouldn't risk such a deception closer to Dragon lands, but here so far from them he was safe from scrutiny. He had several agents working for him in the village, for he found such innocuous places to be perfect for his information network. But Sunshine village held true to its name and although he could operate in daylight if he wanted to, Yurishi preferred to spend daytime in the shade of a room if possible at all.
A spider crept into the room, sliding under the tiniest of spaces between the sliding doors and the tatami mats. As it approached Yurishi, it changed into a larger shape. Its features flowed smoothly like water filling a vessel. Soon it was standing as tall as a man. Its face, however, remained that of a spider, oversized and animated with human intelligence. “Mirumoto Shigeri” smiled.
“Kumoru-san,” he said without bothering to stand up. “What a pleasure to see you.”
“Few would agree, Yurishi-sama,” Kumoru bowed. The oversized chelicerae he had instead of lips moved as he spoke punctuating his speech with clicking sounds. “I have the information you requested.”
“I know,” Yurishi smiled. In truth, he didn't even need to see Kumoru to know. The Goju were literally his eyes and his ears, a trick he had learned from his parent, the Shadow Dragon. Since it had been imprisoned by Daigotsu, Yurishi found it increasingly easier to see through his vassals' eyes. Yurishi just found discussing his plans aloud with his vassals often helped him achieve greater clarity. “Things are moving in interesting directions, aren't they Kumoru-san?”
“Indeed, Yurishi-sama. More of us embrace the darkness with each passing day.”
“You've done well, Kumoru. And in the Empire Kanpeki-sama will forge, you might even be able to show your true face to the world. Such a glorious sight it will be.”
“Thank you, Yurishi-sama,” Kumoru bowed. “I just have one question, if I may.”
“What am I?”
Yurishi pondered his answer for a moment. The origins of his own birth were a mystery to him. The Goju only had fragments of their old identity. Their fealty to the Spider and the fact the majority of them were Tainted only added to the puzzle of their mind.
“Just like the Spider itself, Kumoru-san, you will have to figure that out on your own.”
A Spider will become an/the Imperial Scribe (Przemek "Walec" Kowalczyk, Kotei 2011)
A Spider will become an/the Imperial Matchmaker (Niklas Rinn, Kotei 2011)
A Spider will become the Empire's Greatest Musician (Jason Lee, Kotei 2011)
Omigawa will receive secret instructions by Yunmen the Whisper of the Order of Benten (Mark Armitage, L5R Worlds 2014, Sheffield, Enlightenment Draft).