Kuni Fumio leads his pony across the desolate landscape. The pony is loaded with satchels, boxes, and baskets – all empty. They will be filled once the untold hours of drudgery are over. Fumio shakes his head in resignation. Cataloging – it’s his punishment for annoying his daimyo. It’s not hard, just very tedious and mind-numbingly dull. All of possessions of the recently deceased Kuni Miyako have to be inventoried, and anything of value brought back to the Shiro Kuni. Depending upon how much random crap Miyako gathered over her lifetime, this could take weeks.
The aptly named Kuni Wastes stretch for leagues and leagues about Fumio and his pony. The parched earth is laced with fissures – some small, some large. The shattered plains stretch to the horizon completely barren of life. In the distance, heat lightning arcs across the sky, heavy with brooding clouds, but they will bring no rain. It never rains here in the Wastes. Not for more than a millennium. Maybe never again.
Centuries ago, before the Carpenter’s Wall was built, the Kuni homelands fell to a powerful Oni lord called The Maw. The demons were thrown back, but the land was thoroughly Tainted. The Kuni could only save it by killing it, and now the Kuni live on its desiccated corpse. Some in the Empire whisper that the Kuni are necromancers. The gossipers don’t know the half of it, Fumio thinks with a wry grin.
At the cost of elemental harmony, the Kuni have created tenuous ley lines of spiritual power that stretch across the lands. Kuni Miyako’s house lies at a junction of two of these ley lines. It’s a small structure half-dug into the ground to protect it from the frequent sandstorms that scour the Wastes. One of the walls is sagging, and the roof needs to be patched. Five massive spikes of stone thrust up from the ground in a malformed circle about the cottage. The spikes reach twenty feet into the air and curve inward ever so slightly so that they resemble skeletal fingers that could crush the cottage at a moment’s notice.
Fumio looks over the house and inspects the stone fingers. Everything appears as it should be, and he figures he better start the cataloging as soon as possible to get it over with. “Decrepit cottage complete with creepy landscape – check,” he says to no one in particular. Kuni tend to develop idiosyncrasies. Fumio figures talking to himself isn’t so bad. At least he doesn’t have a cricket collection with every single cricket named Kabu.
Fumio ties his pony to a rough hewn post on the leeward side of the house and unloads the bags and baskets. The pony waits patiently as Fumio works but eagerly begins eating when the shugenja puts the feedbag over his muzzle. Fumio tousles the pony’s mane then pushes open the door to the cottage, which squeals as the hinges grind. Fumio grunts in approval. “Appropriately squeaky door – check.”
The inside of the cottage is a single, plain, barely furnished room. Fumio scans the contents – a ratty futon, a small fireplace, a low table, and a shrine to the Fortunes. On the table is a make-up set and a mannequin’s head painted with the elaborate kabuki pattern worn my Miyako. Every kuni’s pattern is unique. The mannequin head will be brought back to Shiro Kuni so that her pattern can be added to the hall of honored ancestors. Fumio kneels before shrine and prays that Miyako’s soul might find serenity in the next life. He then offers a prayer to Ebisu to bless his work.
When he is done, the shugenja rises and paces the room, obviously searching for something. After several minutes, he grabs the corner of the futon and hauls it aside, revealing a wooden trap door. Fumio pulls on the door’s large iron ring, opening it to expose a steep stair that descends into the rock beneath the cottage. Fumio nods in approval. “Ominous hidden stair leading to dark dungeons – check.”
Without hesitation, Fumio descends the winding stair. The stairs are lit by minor fire kami bound to torches set in wall sconces. They awaken when he approaches and bounce on their torches as if awaiting treats. Fumio reaches into his kimono sleeve and pulls out a stick of incense. He breaks off a piece as he passes each torch and thanks the kami for their service. The fire kami eagerly consume the tasty flammable treats. “Flickering torches providing angsty lighting – check,” Fumio says and continues down the stairs.
The stairs end in Miyako’s laboratory deep beneath her cottage and are also lit by fire kami. The labs comprise a half-dozen different rooms, each contributing in some way to Miyako’s investigation into the Shadowlands and the creation of new defenses against the Taint. Fumio spends several hours exploring the lab. As he goes, he adds more to his mental inventory. “Weird noises with no discernable source – check. Strategically placed spooky cobwebbing – heck yeah, check. Eldritch things danglin’ from the ceilin’ – check. Collection of skulls arranged by size and type – check. Skulls that talk when offered sake – nope, pity that. Partially eviscerated corpse in the midst of dissection – check, and oddly stench-free. Bottles of disturbin’ organs preserved in fluids – check. A collection of plush stuffed animals – check.” The last are particularly unsettling, all lined up on her desk staring at him with beady glass eyes and frozen perky smiles.
“As bad as Zenshin’s crickets,” Fumio grumbles and turns his attention away from the plush animals to Miyako’s desk, which is piled high with papers detailing her many experiments. He flips through the scrolls, noting her progress on a number of fronts. “Laboratory journals filled with obscure yet vaguely menacin’ writin’ – check.” Miyako had made several investigations into some of the more obscure types of oni. Nothing earth-shattering, but very informative nonetheless. This would have to all go back to Shiro Kuni.
Tucked under the notes, Fumio finds a small scroll case. From the condition of the wood and the paint, it is older than anything else in Miyako’s laboratory. The style of decorations faded from popular use centuries ago. His curiosity fully engaged, Fumio pops the lid and gingerly extracts the scroll within. The paper has survived in excellent condition, and is covered with calligraphy. The precise brushstokes are unlike anything written by Miyako. Fumio looks closely and reads.
“I leave this scroll for my descendants that those who would be pure may follow in my footsteps. I commit to these pages the first step necessary to learn and understand the secrets of crystal I gained from the Crooked Tail tribe. The path will be difficult and the trials harsh, but if you are true samurai of the Kuni family, you should expect nothing less.”
Upon reading these words, Fumio’s eyes go wide. Crystal? Crooked Tail tribe? He quickly scans the rest of the scroll. Yes, it is. There at the bottom is the chop of Kuni Utagu – the Kuni daimyo and Jade Champion more than three centuries ago. He first brought the knowledge of crystal magic to the family. The scroll itself is a description of a ritual that would prepare the shugenja to learn more about crystal magic. The scroll is frustratingly vague on the details of how this was to happen. Very strong kami of the earth are involved, but beyond that Fumio isn’t sure.
It never really enters Fumio’s mind to not perform the ritual. His mind is afire with possibility. He has the writings of Utagu himself. The Jade Champion left this scroll for later generations to follow in his footsteps. To not perform the ritual is unthinkable.
The process of preparing the ritual circle takes hours. It calls for a large circle to be drawn on the floor on the ground using seven different colors of sand. Pure white sand fills the interior. Fortunately, Miyako has significant amount of colored sand in her stores. Fumio uses a small ladle to pour the sand into the shapes he needs and inscribes the kanji at the appropriate places. When all is done, he speaks the prayer to the kami. “Spirits of crystalline perfection. I call upon you to hear my prayer. I beseech you to open the way to me. Show me the reflections of crystal that I may see purely.”
As soon as the prayer is uttered, the center of the circle sinks down. It then collapses altogether into a darkened hole, and sand starts pouring down the sloping sides. In seconds, the hole has enlarged to occupy most of the circle. Fumio realizes his danger and takes a step back only to find the stone beneath his sandals turning to mush. “Dammit!” he exclaims and reaches out to grab something, anything, to stop his slide downward. His fingers scrabble vainly for some sort of purchase on the stone floor, but they find none. The sand pours away beneath him, dragging him to the hole that now completely fills the circle.
“Typical,” Fumio mutters then plummets into the abyss.