Lifeless, Part One
By Rich Wulf
She did not know how long she had been in this strange place, or how she had come to be here. Endless plains of dying grass surrounded her, blanketed in a dense, roiling fog. There was no sun, no moon, only a harsh half-light that cast everything in an ghastly radiance. Dozens of other men and women wandered the plains, eyes glazed with hopelessness. Some wore armor that resembled her own, though most were washed out in tones of gray. The colors, for those who were not yet gray, struck a chord with her. They seemed important, somehow. She could not recall why. Their faces were gaunt, their eyes hollow. Each time she approached one to ask who they were, how they had all come here, they would quickly vanish into the fog.
She was alone.
Though she could not remember who she was, loneliness felt wrong to her. It seemed almost as if there were a time, long ago, when she was alone. She could not call upon the memory but it struck her as a thing better left forgotten. It was better to be surrounded by those you loved. There was no place for her here.
The most irritating part of this place was the sameness of it all. As much as she wandered, there was no change in her surroundings. This, too, felt unnatural. It was in her heart to explore. If there was no purpose in exploring, if all was the same, then what else was there? A great sadness fell upon her. After wandering the gray plains for many days, she noticed that her once brilliant armor was beginning to adopt the same gray, washed-out tones of the other lost souls. She wondered what color it had once been.
Noticing a pool of water nearby, she hurried to kneel beside it. She was not thirsty, but was eager to see something other than the unending wasteland. Her reflection looked up from the water curiously, a timeless face with pale skin and deep brown eyes. She looked at herself for some time before she felt the eyes of another upon her. She glanced up to find a wandering soul sitting cross-legged on the other side of the pool. It was a man, proud and broad-shouldered with the elegant features of a noble. His hair was cropped short in a style unfamiliar to her. He wore a fine kimono of pure white silk.
"Greetings," he said, his deep voice resonating with a strange accent. "You have come to enjoy the refreshing waters of my oasis?"
"I do not meant to intrude," she said, bowing politely. "I saw the pool and was overjoyed to see something new."
The man smiled to himself, as if her words somehow satisfied him. "I take no offense," he said. "Feel free to gaze into these waters as long as you like. You may be surprised what you find."
She looked at him curiously. "You do not have the same confused look as the other souls I have seen," she said. "You do not retreat from me as they do."
"That is only natural," the man said with a sigh. "They fear our kind. We remind them too much of what they have lost, I fear."
"And what have they lost?" she asked.
"Is it not obvious?" he asked with a laugh. "They have lost their lives. This is the land of the dead."
She dipped one hand into the pool, startled by the water's coolness. She looked at her open palm. The skin was callused from a lifetime of hard work and combat.
"I was a warrior," she said. "Though I took no joy in killing."
The man nodded. "Already you begin to remember," he said. "The pool's magic is strong. You were a valiant warrior. Your courage was exceeded only by your mercy. Even your greatest enemies, those who proved their cruelty and ruthlessness time and again, were not beyond redemption in your esteem."
Her eyes narrowed slightly. "Do I know you?" she asked. "You seem familiar."
"We have met before," the man admitted. "It was a long time ago. You probably do not remember me, but I remember you. Do you remember your name?"
She looked down at her armor. The gray tarnish had fallen away, now replaced with brilliant purple enamel. "I am Shinjo," she said, looking up at him again.
"And do you know what that means?" he asked.
"I am a goddess," she replied, closing her eyes as memory filled her. "I am a daughter of Onnotangu and Amaterasu, the First Moon and the First Sun. I rode forth to persuade my brother to halt his invasion of heaven, to plead with him to turn his armies aside."
"Fu Leng did not accept your offer," the man said sadly.
"He murdered me," Shinjo said a tear falling from the corner of one eye. One hand rose, balling into a fist over her heart. "I came to him in love, and he smiled as he stabbed me in the chest."
"You were too trusting, Shinjo," the man said. "That has always been your greatest strength, and your greatest weakness."
She wiped the tears away with the back of one hand, then looked about urgently. Her gaze was sharp now, unclouded by her lack of identity. "Where am I now?" she asked. "I must return to Tengoku so that I can rejoin the fight against my brother."
"You are far from Tengoku now," the man said. "This is Meido. The Gray Realm. The Realm of Death. The Realm of Waiting. There is no escape from this place for those who belong here. The war is no longer your concern."
"No longer my concern?" Shinjo snapped, glaring at the stranger. "Fu Leng seeks to corrupt the Heavens, to slaughter all those who were once mortal and are now divine."
"A terrible crisis, to be sure," the man agreed. "There are few gods in Rokugan that were not once mortal. Once your brother finishes with those who were once mortal, he will turn on those who aided them. Fu Leng will not stop until the Heavens lie empty."
Shinjo sighed. "He has changed so much. I feel as if I no longer know him. You speak as if you are familiar with him."
The man nodded. "I have dealt with him in the past. I understand something of why he acts as he does. When Fu Leng fell to Jigoku, his thoughts of revenge were the only thing that allowed him to deal with the horrors he encountered there. Now, revenge is all that he has left. He would go to any end to achieve that goal. Turning him from his current course would be… difficult."
"It is difficult for me to believe my brother would do such a thing," Shinjo whispered.
"Perhaps that is why you are dead now," the man said.
"Do not mock me," Shinjo said in a low voice.
"Have I said anything that is untrue?" the man asked, raising one eyebrow. He looked at her impassively. She noticed for the first time that his eyes were pure black, with no white whatsoever.
"No," Shinjo admitted. "Even so it galls me that I am in such a state. In the mortal realm my brothers and I could be killed, but in the Heavens? I was immortal. How could even Fu Leng accomplish such a thing?"
"No power is absolute," the man replied. "The spear Fu Leng carries was created by Emma-O to defend this realm. That weapon is the physical manifestation of the Fortune of Death's power. All who are slain by it are bound here in Meido for all eternity."
"Bah," Shinjo replied, brow furrowing in thought. "Fu Leng was also bound in Meido, yet he escaped."
"Fu Leng was never killed by the spear," the man answered. "Emma-O feared Fu Leng too much to attack him directly. As soon as the Dark Kami arrived here, the Fortune of Death bound his spirit in powerful magics and sealed him away while he was still disoriented. It was only when Fu Leng's servant, Daigotsu, tricked Emma-O that the Fortune was forced to release your brother. That was when Fu Leng saw the potential within the spear, and took it for his own."
"You know a great deal about all of this," Shinjo said, looking at the man warily. "You said that you had dealings with my brother in the past. My memory has returned, yet I do not know your face. Who are you?"
"A friend," the man said. "I have no true name."
"Why do you retain your memory when everyone else only wanders?" she asked.
"I am quite familiar with the effects of realms such as these," he said. "I prepared myself before I ventured here."
She continued to watch him in suspicion. "Emma-O is a vigilant guardian," she said. "How did you escape his notice?"
"Emma-O is not the Fortune he once was," the man said. "His failure to contain Fu Leng has made him panicked, distracted, prone to mistakes. My allies and I were able to enter this realm unnoticed, for a time."
"You said you were a friend," she pressed, a slow suspicion dawning on her. "That is why you dare the Fortune of Death's wrath? Friendship?"
"More than that," the man said. "I owe your people a favor. I intend to repay that favor today."
"By helping me regain my memory?" Shinjo asked. "A small consolation, now that I know I shall be trapped here forever. I think I preferred ignorance."
"Your memory is only part of the gift I offer," the man replied. "I intend to help you regain your freedom. If you truly do not wish my aid, then just continue as you were. The magic of the pool will fade soon and you will return to your fugue state."
Shinjo dipped her hand into the water, watching the liquid drip from the tips of her long fingers. "You told me that there was no escape," she said.
"I said that there is no escape for those who belong here," he corrected. "Here, as in all things, one who pays careful attention to the rules can always find a way to circumvent them without breaking them."
"So what must I do?" she asked.
"Follow me," he said, rising and smoothing his long robes over his chest. She noticed that he was much taller than he had seemed when sitting. He turned and strode away across the gray fields, pausing when he realized Shinjo had not yet risen. He looked back at her placidly for a long moment.
"I told you that trust has always been your greatest strength, and your greatest weakness," the man said. "You need to begin recognizing the difference." He continued walking again. The message was clear. Whether she chose to take this opportunity or sit by the pool forever was ultimately her choice.
Shinjo quickly stood and followed the stranger, glancing about as she did so for any sign of ambush or attack. In a vague way, she hoped for an attack. It would be easier to deal with than this. As much as she despised war, she excelled at combat. Problems seemed so much simpler when they could be solved with a sword. She almost wished that her brother, Bayushi, were here. He could be untrustworthy at times, but he was an excellent judge of character. Bayushi would have known whether or not to follow the white-robed stranger. Then again, Bayush would never have trusted Fu Leng and fallen into this situation.
The two walked in silence over the gray plains. The other wandering souls avoided them, though some paused to look curiously at her companion before they vanished into the fog. The stranger paid them no mind, his attention solely on the path ahead.
"You mentioned allies," Shinjo said as they walked. "You did not come here alone."
"No," the man said with a quick smile. "I came here with my brothers. They are attending to the Fortune of Death, making certain that he does not know what we plan."
"I see," Shinjo said. "I hope that you mean him no harm. Emma-O is an important deity, worthy of respect."
The man did not reply immediately. "My brothers intend to show him all the respect that he is due," he said evasively. "Now, Shinjo, look upon your destiny." He gestured at the valley ahead.
The fog parted and Shinjo saw an enormous stone portal, carved in the shape of a spiraling serpent devouring its own tail. At times, the portal shimmered with a holy white radiance. Sometimes, it leaked a sickly black light. Most of the time it was empty and dormant.
Shinjo looked sharply at the stranger. "That portal resembles Oblivion's Gate," she said, "the portal through which the Lying Darkness tried to destroy the Empire."
"The resemblance is no coincidence," the man said. "Just as Oblivion's Gate brought new life to the dead, so will this portal bring new life to you. However, you must be prepared to pay the price for your freedom."
"What price is that?" Shinjo asked.
"My sister?" called a voice from the fog. "Is that you?"
Shinjo looked up suddenly, eyes wide. She recognized the source of the voice, though she could not bring herself to believe it. A short, stocky man stepped forward from the mists, his face calm and serene. Long white hair hung limply around a bald scalp. He bowed deeply. At her side, the white-robed stranger smiled.
"Ryoshun!" Shinjo exclaimed, rushing forward to embrace her brother. He chuckled and clumsily hugged her in return.
"Now, now, Shinjo-chan," Ryoshun said, his voice thick as joyful tears streamed down his cheeks. "We do not have much time before Emma-O finds us."
"I thought that you had perished during the Battle of Oblivion's Gate," she said, looking into his eyes in wonder. "Yet when I returned to Tengoku you were not there."
"My place is here," Ryoshun replied, a note of regret in his voice. "I am the steward of lost souls. When the Fortune of Death deems their time in Meido complete, I send them on to their destiny. Why did you not come to me sooner, Shinjo-chan? You do not belong here."
Shinjo looked at Ryoshun curiously. "I am dead, my brother," she said. "Fu Leng slew me."
Ryoshun nodded. "Yes, but Meido is more than simply a realm of the dead," he said. "Meido is a realm for those burdened by sins and misdeeds. You are a goddess, a hero. You do not deserve this punishment."
"Ryoshun, you are too innocent," the white-robed man chuckled. "Of course, that is why you are perfectly suited to aid the souls of the forgotten." He stroked his chin with one hand. Shinjo noticed that his fingers and wrist were decorated in many golden rings and bracelets. "Emma-O has always despised the Kami, for while they live in paradise and are honored by Rokugan, he must serve as warden over countless broken souls. Only Ryoshun has ever made the effort to aid him. Emma-O took great relish in Fu Leng's imprisonment, and was humiliated when the Dark Kami escaped. Now it seems one Kami's soul is as good as another. He would have kept you here forever, Shinjo, to slake his petty vengeance."
"But no longer," Shinjo said. "I will step through the portal, return to Heaven, and carry the fight to Fu Leng!"
"No," the man in white said. "As I said, the Heavens is beyond you now. There is only one path that leads a dead soul from Meido, and that leads to an altogether different destiny."
Shinjo looked to Ryoshun. Her brother nodded sadly.
"He speaks truth," Ryoshun said. "You are too closely bound to this realm. The only way for you to leave now is the way the others leave, when they are ready." He looked back at the gates, then back at his sister. "Pass through this gate, and you will be reincarnated according to your kharma."
Shinjo blinked. "I would become mortal?"
Ryoshun nodded. "Most likely. You would be born again to human parents with no memory of your former life. In time, you may recognize some measure what you were and become such a legend that your life as Shinjo will pale in comparison."
"Or, perhaps, you might fail and fade into obscurity," the man in white said. "Such is the risk of being mortal."
"Then I will take that risk," Shinjo said, looking up at the portal. "Better than wandering here forever."
"I am glad you made the right decision," the man in white said, dark eyes gleaming. "You will not regret your choice."
"I had best not," she said, looking back at him fiercely. "You think that I do not recognize you, but I know who you are now. You have proven yourself reliable, but if I find you and your kin have aided me out of some misbegotten design to harm the Unicorn, I will find you. I will defeat you as I did before, even if I am mortal."
The man smiled. "Make no mistake, Shinjo, I intend to benefit from this arrangement more than you do, but I have not lied to you. I swear to you that my brethren and I will not harm the Unicorn Clan. In that, we are of one mind."
Shinjo looked at the man for a long moment, gauging his sincerity. With a final satisfied nod she turned, kissed her brother on the cheek, and stepped through the glimmering portal.
And then she was gone.
Ryoshun and the white-robed stranger remained where they were for a long time, watching the shimmering portal of the dead.
"And what will you do now, stranger?" Ryoshun asked, looking up at the man curiously. He was very tall now, almost twice Ryoshun's height. "You and your allies should flee before Emma-O realizes what you have done."
The man smiled, revealing fine, white teeth. "I do not fear the Fortune of Death," he said, his voice growing deeper and more resonant as he spoke. "Even now my nine brothers invade his palace, taking it for our own."
Ryoshun's eyes widened. "You have attacked a Fortune?"
"I have not, but my brothers have," the man said. He studied the back of his hand, watched as the skin faded to be replaced with a skeletal form. "By now Emma-O's palace has been conquered, his guards replaced with our own."
Ryoshun's looked up at the man, now fully revealed in his true form. He was a tall, skeletal figure garbed in kingly robes and fine jewelry. Ryoshun's immortal soul was filled with horror as he realized he stood before one of the Shi-Tien Yen-Wang, a Lord of Death. The gaijin death gods had ruled the Moto for three thousand years before their defeat at Shinjo's hands.
Now they had returned.
Now Shinjo, who defeated them in the past, was gone.
"I will not stand for this," Ryoshun said in a quiet but steady voice.
"Stand for what?" the Lord of Death replied mildly. He looked down at Ryoshun, bony face unreadable. "You misunderstand me, Ryoshun. The Shi-Tien Yen-Wang are a force for order. In days of old, we judged the dead much as Emma-O did, enforcing that order upon all those who would not bow before us. Unlike Emma-O, we never let a soul escape."
"But you helped Shinjo escape!" Ryoshun shouted.
"And Emma-O should have stopped us," the Lord of Death replied, looking down at Ryoshun with a steady, immovable gaze. "Your Fortune of Death is incompetent. We have done your Celestial Order a favor in disposing of him. When the war in Tengoku is done the other Fortunes will look upon us and weigh our actions. We saved Okura, Guardian of the Gates. We aided Jade, protector of mortals. We helped Shinjo move on to the next stage of her existence. And now we impose our will upon Meido, restoring order to the land of the dead."
"You cannot simply conquer a Spirit Realm," Ryoshun said. "The Fortunes will not stand for this any more than they will stand for Fu Leng's invasion of Tengoku."
The Lord of Death sighed. "Ryoshun, you overestimate your position. The forces of Heaven care nothing for Meido, so long as it is orderly. Emma-O has proven himself unable to maintain that order. It was he who allowed a mortal to trick him into releasing Fu Leng, while we have been staunch allies of Heaven from the beginning of this war. If we ask for Meido in return for our aid, do you think that we will be denied? Do you truly believe that the powers of Tengoku will not find such an arrangement the most beneficial for all involved? They will not leap upon such a chance to punish Emma-O and reward the Shi-Tien Yen-Wang in one fell swoop. You, of all deities, should know how easy it is for your brethren to overlook the dead. Do you truly believe the Sun and Moon care if Meido is ruled by one death god or ten?"
Ryoshun frowned severely. He bowed his head, limp hair, hanging over his face. "No," he said. "I do not believe any of that will matter to them."
"I would prefer not to have you as an enemy, Ryoshun," the Lord of Death said. "Will you serve us?"
Ryoshun looked up, locking gazes with the Lord of Death. "I will not help you fight Emma-O," he said, "but for helping my sister, I will not stand against you either."
"Very well, then," the Lord of Death said, his jaw clattering in satisfaction. "It is an honor to have met you, Ryoshun. If there is anything we can do to make your duties here more comfortable, do not hesitate to let us know. Now I must leave and help my brethren secure our new palace. Arigato."
With that, the skeletal god vanished from sight, leaving Ryoshun alone beside the shimmering portal.
"I hope you find your way, Shinjo-chan," Ryoshun said, looking back at the shimmering portal. "I pray that you are as strong in the next life as you were in the last. In a world such as this, we will need your strength."
TO BE CONTINUED