By Christopher Orr
I have often wondered if the majority of the Empire ever stops to reflect on the true nature of the Shadowlands, and the perverse power that it bestows. It remains typical that the forces of Rokugan are assaulted by the standard oni and bakemono. The truer horrors of Fu-Leng are more awesome and terrible than the hallucinations that haunt the dreams of samurai.
Would that I had remained as blissfully ignorant of it as the remainder of this Jade Empire. But I have seen what but a few wretched souls have seen. I know not how I escaped that damned place, nor do I have any conception of what the Crab will decree for my fate. However, for now I remain myself. I am still Hiruma Yukito.
It is not my place to plead ignorance of the Shadowlands. Though most know only of tales and dire warnings, my erudition is first-hand. My only benefit to the Clan of my birth is my swiftness and accuracy in those accursed lands. This expertise also proved to be my heaviest curse.
It was he. My destiny was altered the day he arrived. That man came to my post at Carpenter Wall without forewarning or notice. His raiment betrayed his position within the Kuni, as did his perpetually haunted eyes. I remember vividly how he scowled as he spoke, offering his name merely as a formality. He spoke cryptically, mentioning obliquely matters in which I have no acquaintance. I had no knowledge of this Kuni Ryoji, but I saw fit to keep this observation to myself.
Ryoji proceeded to inform me that I had something of a reputation within select circles of the clan. As such, he had chosen me to accompany him in an expedition deep within the tainted realm of the Shadowlands. My four-week rotation at the Wall had been spent in perfectly mundane courier tasks. My very body seemed to hear the siren call of duty, and I was cleared by the roster to venture beyond the Carpenter Wall.
From the day I was born, bushido had been rooted deep within my soul. Duty would allow me no less than to serve as an escort for this journey. And none would have doubted my ability to do so. It was several years prior that I first ventured into the Shadowlands, serving as the vital eyes of the Crab in that decrepit land. I thought I knew the dangers and how to avoid or defeat my foes.
For my part, the preparations for this particular trip were no different than any other in my memory. I obtained a small finger of jade before setting myself to clear my heart, mind, and soul for another trip beyond the Wall.
Oh, what a fool I was to consider this trip ordinary.
As Lord Sun rose over the battlements, we met as arranged. We tarried not at all before plunging into the tainted wastes. Kuni Ryoji seemed to move about the warped trees and putrid rivers as if my presence was unnecessary. That theory was quickly laid to rest as I guided us around a roving band of deformed beasts prowling the banks of that rank, sluggish stream. The bakemono were not the humorous beasts the Kakubi show, instead the bloated brutes shambled around with only destruction to guide them.
Time seems different within the limitless confines of the Wastes, somehow
distorted by the filth surrounding. Kuni Ryoji found that hideous city in what
seemed like hours, though the rations said it was days.
The moment I entered that city, I knew that death was around. It permuted everything in that dismal area. Without pausing to give me insight into his quest, Kuni Ryoji rushed headlong into the ramshackle walls and debris littered streets. I know not for what my shugenja charge searched, nor do I know think I would care to know. Ryoji was not forthcoming with any but the basest knowledge. Why he entered the Shadowands at all was a mystery that he kept closely hidden. That the mystery was damned and forbidden seems likely now.
It was my trust to keep the area free of the Shadowlands beasts, or at least allow us a rapid egress. I now know why none had explored those ruins, for only ruin can result.
I heard a cry for the interior, but it echoed off of many crumbling buildings ere it reached me. I flew into the collapsing structures, running heedlessly between the wreckage and devastation. In the end, it was not I who found Ryoji, but rather he found me.
He appeared different somehow, though I failed to comprehend it at the time. The very fiber of the Shadowlands changes people, infusing each with its fetid energy. Even so, his actions might have been odd, if not for the nature of the Kuni and their solitary ways.
Unexpectedly, my companion left the toppled city with a large amount of haste. For all of my training and endurance, Ryoji always managed to remain ahead of me. South he headed, beyond the areas that I patrolled, into the areas of the Shadowlands that I knew only by report and rumor.
I would have had no conception of where he led, save for the odor that betrayed the murk. The most dangerous area that the Hiruma had reported lay before us. Kuni Ryoji was leading us into the stale and decaying peat of the Shadowlands Marsh.
Now I can only wish to the kami that watch over that I had never stepped foot into that befouled quarter. As it was, I once again lost Ryoji in the blinding gases of the marsh. The bog seemed to extend into eternity, the twisted copse swallowing the bleak sky in all directions.
I do not care to fathom how many days I lost in those tainted waters. I knew only that my salvation rested upon finding the shugenja that I lost. All of my training with the Moto and my own brethren was employed as I stalked my charge, however for too long I found only fiends.
It was near the middle of the bog that I came upon that wretched lair. Although clearly not abandoned, no proprietor was in sight. Slowly did I lurk forward trying to gain some new insight into this mystery. For upon the ground was the satchel that Ryoji had borne with him on this doomed quest.
I cannot be sure when I retrieved the finger of jade from my pouch, finding passively that I was grasping it like a lifeline. The wet crunch of rotting timber was my only warning. Not thinking, only reacting, I spun hard on my heel. I looked directly into the eyes of Kuni Ryoji. But these eyes belonged to the foulest, most hideous monster that I have seen spawn from the Shadowlands. Its pale green skin seemed the hue of rotting flesh, while its mass was like half-formed clay. But the eyes, the eyes! I shrieked and did the only thing that the beast was not expecting. I lunged forward, nigh witless, and thrust the finger of jade where the creature's heart should have been.
Those damned eyes grew huge as the power of the jade coursed though its deformed body. Rancid smoke rose where the tainted flesh could not withstand the purity.
I scrambled into the beast's lair to escape the horrible thrashing and desperate slashes. I thought the worst had passed. Never was I more the fool.
If the merciful Fortunes were watching over me, I simply would have gone mad. Instead my mind stayed and shuddered at the discovery before me. The pale light was more than enough to identify the hideous truth. I now knew that I had been wrong from the beginning. I had no conception of what I was being led into.
For there on the rocks, beside several withered others, was the raiment and skin of Kuni Ryoji.