A Hero's Death, Chapter One
By Rich Wulf and Shawn Carman

o

Kyuden Miya - The Heart

"It is always an honor to serve you, Aunt Yumi-sama." Miya Shoin bowed deeply from his kneeling position, his forehead very nearly touching the floor. His hands were still dusty and aching from the rigorous kyujutsu practice session that had been interrupted by his summons to an audience with his daimyo. He wished that there had been time to make himself more presentable, but it had been an urgent summons.

The elderly woman sitting opposite him smiled warmly. "Shoin," she chided, "you know that you do not have to be so formal with me. I have known you since you were an infant, and your mother for nearly that long. How is your mother?"

Shoin smiled. "She is well, Aunt Yumi-sama."

Yumi chuckled. "You call me 'aunt,' when it is I who should call you 'uncle.' Your father, Dosonu, was one of my greatest ancestors. That makes you one of my grand-uncles, I believe"

"The War of Spirits has left many legacies," Shoin replied carefully. "The strangest of which may be the struggle to undo the knots spirit-mortal couplings left behind in our lineage. Perhaps I may technically be your grand uncle a dozen generations hence, but it would make me less confused if I could call you aunt, Yumi-sama."

Yumi chuckled. "Well said. So be it." Her warm smile remained in place until she glanced to her left, where Shoin had set his belongings after rushing in from the field. Her gaze lingered on the small bow he carried, the yumi, her namesake. Her eyes became wistful, almost sorrowful. She quickly glanced away to look at the door to the main court chamber. That chamber had been sealed since the disastrous events of the Winds' failed Winter Court some months previous. Finally, she spoke again. "Your training with the Wasp Clan goes well?"

Shoin cleared his throat slightly, looking flushed. "The Mantis are very gracious hosts, Aunt Yumi-sama, and yes, the Tsuruchi are excellent teachers." The Wasp Clan, technically, were no more. Correcting Yumi made him feel uncomfortable, but such was necessary to avoid dishonoring his sensei.

There was another long pause from Yumi. "Do you often see Ashin-- I mean Tsuruchi Ichiro? I understand he is very much involved in the teaching of the students at Kyuden Ashinagabachi."

"Yes, Aunt Yumi-sama," Shoin said quietly. "I am honored to meet with him twice weekly for instruction." He watched the faraway look in Yumi's eyes with mild distress. It pained him to see her old wounds this way. Finally, he could restrain himself no more, even if it did mean a slight betrayal of trust. "He asks after you often. He has often recounted to me the tales of his travels with you during the Clan War." He paused, then added "And of course with Sanzo and the shugenja Koan as well."

Yumi lowered her gaze to the floor. It was several long minutes before she raised her head again, and Shoin suspected she was fighting tears. When at last she looked up, her smile had reappeared. A lifetime in court had made her an expert at locking away her emotions. "Those were different days," she said, her voice thick. "The world was falling apart around us, and all that we could see was the adventure of it all. Had we known what we were up against, I wonder if we would have gone on."

"Of course, Aunt Yumi-sama," Shoin said. "You were heroes. You could do no less."

Yumi smiled. "Heroes are a product of war," she replied. "The Miya do not seek glory, only peace. So there are no Miya heroes. Did I not teach you that?"

"Of course, Yumi-sama," Shoin said, bowing his head respectfully.

"Had things been different, had your sensei and I not both been destined to lead our families..." Yumi paused again, then cleared her throat quickly. "Nephew, forgive an old woman her reminiscing. You were called here to receive a summons from Otosan Uchi, and I have kept you waiting with foolish stories." She withdrew a scroll from the folds of her kimono and held it out for Shoin to take.

With trembling hands, Shoin accepted the scroll. The seal was unmistakable. Shoin could imagine no possible reason for such a thing, and thus was filled with a sort of nervous terror. He carefully broke the seal and unfurled the scroll. Shoin read it in silence, then re-read it. When at last he set it down, he looked up at Yumi incredulously.

"There are five more scrolls in this pouch," Yumi said, lifting a small satchel from beside the low table and offering it to Shoin. "They are to be distributed as per the instructions in your own scroll. All arrangements have been made for your travels."

"I must prepare to leave at once, Aunt Yumi-sama. It seems I have a long journey ahead."

"I wish you good fortune. Be cautious, nephew. These are dangerous times. May your father's spirit protect you in your journey."

o

Shiro Utaku - The Hunter

Spirits.

Why did everything in her life revolve around the dead?

The day she was born was the same day that the Iron Chrysanthemum began his attack upon the Empire.
The day she was apprenticed to her older sister to begin her training as a Battle Maiden was the same day that she learned her father had died in combat with the spirit armies of the Moto.

The day she was to be given her gempukku, Bayushi Tozasu and his spirit minions arrived in her village, taking revenge upon the descendants of the Unicorn who had killed them at White Shore Plain. They slew every Unicorn samurai they found, including her mother, her brother, and her three sisters. Had she taken her gempukku a day earlier, she would have been slain as well. She often wished that she had been.

It seemed as if every important event in her short life had involved the dead.

And now this.

The battle maiden paused, bokken clutched in both hands as she stared silently across the practice dojo. A thin young man with a pale face stood at the entrance. His skin glowed faintly in the dim light. He smoothed a wicker cloak over one shoulder as he glanced about the chamber.

"You are Utaku Yu-Pan?" the man asked, glancing down at an unfurled scroll in his left hand and then looking at her. His tone was swift, precise, as if he was already certain of the answer and was simply informing her of his conclusion.

"I am Yu-Pan," she sneered, holding the practice blade defensively. She did not move from where she stood, nor did she lower her weapon or grant any sort of respectful acknowledgment.

"Ah," the man replied. A look of discomfort flitted across his face. "My name is Miya Shoin. I am a messenger from Otosan Uchi. I apologize for disturbing you at this late hour, but I only just arrived and my message is quite urgent. Lady Xieng Chi told me that I could find you here if I needed-"

"What do you want?" Yu-Pan demanded.

Shoin frowned. "As I was saying, I have a message for you," he said. He drew a rolled scroll from a pouch at his hip and displayed it in both hands. A pale red wax seal gleamed in the candle light.

"Leave it there," Yu-Pan said, pointing at the floor with the tip of her blade. "I will read it when I am finished."

"I... see," he replied. He bowed briefly and set the scroll gingerly upon the floor, then took several steps back. Shoin folded his arms in his sleeves, and peered at Yu-Pan with curiosity. "Is it not somewhat late at night to be training?" he asked.

Yu-Pan stepped forward, saying nothing, watching the man carefully as she snatched the scroll from the floor. "You are young, for a spirit," she said. "Did you crawl through Oblivion's Gate?"

"I am only half-spirit," Shoin replied. "It is unusual for one such as myself to carry the glow of the Spirit Realms so late in age, and I must confess it is something of a wonder. It is only visible in the darkness, or when I am taken by emotion. It has been theorized that perhaps my spirit father-"

"Your spirit father should have stayed dead," Yu-Pan interrupted, tucking the scroll beneath her arm. "You have accomplished your task, shisha. You are finished here. Go."

Shoin's brow furrowed. "Utaku-san, there is no reason to be so rude."

"Isn't there?" she hefted the bokken in her hand again. "Did you take offense? Perhaps you would like to instruct me in etiquette, shisha?"

She would kill him. If he made any move, any gesture, she would kill him. The spirits had given her nothing but pain and death. Why should she show them anything in return?

Shoin gave her a long, careful glance. "I believe that I shall take my leave now, Utaku-san," he replied. "Now that I have fulfilled my duties here."

Yu Pan said nothing, but watched him as he left. As he passed into the darkness, she could see the pale glow surround him once more. She listened to his receding footsteps for several moments, then broke the seal on the scroll.

A look of confusion crossed Yu-Pan's features.

"An invitation to the Imperial City from the esteemed Otomo Kakasu?"

o

The Izaku Libraries - The Fire

"Who in Jigoku is Otomo Kakasu?" Agasha Chieh asked, her tone brittle. She pushed the scroll aside on the low table and gazed down her hawk-like nose at Miya Shoin. Chieh had the sharp, aquiline features of a Phoenix, but the thin, long-limbed frame of a Dragon. Her shaven head shone in the light of the sun, only adding to her exotic appearance.

Several of the monks tending the garden where Miya Shoin and Agasha Chieh met glanced up at Chieh's curse, but when they saw the source they quickly returned to their meditations. They knew better than to risk her wrath.

"Kakasu is a minor functionary in Otosan Uchi," Shoin replied. "He simply asked that I deliver that message. I know nothing of its contents."

"Of course," Chieh said. She pulled one foot closer to her body, resting her elbow on that knee. The kimono fell away from her leg with the gesture, showing a rather scandalous amount of flesh. Shoin politely glanced the other way, but not before noting a triumphant gleam in Chieh's eyes. That piercing gaze was entirely Kitsuki, despite the fact that her fiery orange kimono was emblazoned with the mon of the Phoenix. Chieh knuckled her chin thoughtfully. "I, an experienced Emerald Magistrate and guardian of the Izaku Libraries, have never heard of this Kakasu, and yet he is important enough to dispatch a shisha to Phoenix territory, through the lines of the war between Phoenix and Dragon, to procure me. How curious. Perhaps I have simply been away from the court for too long?"

"Perhaps," Shoin said. He felt a strange tickle at the back of his mind.

Chieh smiled. "I commend you, Miya," she said. "Your face, your gesture, your body all conceal your lies from my eye, but you cannot fool the kami. They see into your very heart, and they favor me. I know the truth."

Shoin blinked. "Apologies, Chieh-san," he bowed deeply from where he sat. "I did not mean to offend. However, if you will simply hear me out--"

"Explanations are unnecessary," she said with a dismissive wave. "I see deception in your heart, but that is all I see. There is no harmful intent. However, I am disappointed by the fact that you know nothing more than I do..."

"I know that there is no Otomo Kakasu," Shoin replied. "I know only that someone important among the Emerald Magistrates wished to see us both, as well as four others, in the Imperial City."

"Hm," Chieh gave a bemused smile. "Any idea why?"

"I believe it has something to do with our fathers," he replied. "Mine and yours. As for the others... well, I haven't figured those out yet."

"I see," Chieh replied. "Then return to Otosan Uchi. Tell your Kakasu that I will arrive presently."

Shoin gave a relieved sigh. "I will do that," he replied with a nod. A look of sudden concern spread across his pale features. "But tell me... are you not at all offended that I concealed the truth from you?"

Chieh laughed. "If the best this Kakasu could do to hide the truth from me was hide it in your mind, then I am neither concerned nor insulted. I am merely curious. Tell Lord Kakasu that he has my attention." She smiled slowly. Her lips were painted the color of fresh blood. Shoin found her exotic appearance unsettling, but not wholly unappealing.

"I will tell him, Chieh-san," he said. "Though I will be there at the meeting as well. You can tell him yourself."

"Excellent," she replied, "I look forward to that. But while you are here, I don't suppose you could tell me who else this Kakasu has summoned?"

Shoin frowned uncomfortably. "It would be outside my duties to reveal such privileged secrets."

"Privileged?" Chieh chuckled. "If Kakasu does not exist, he can take no offense if you share information. Besides, I am an Emerald Magistrate. Our bones are duty and our blood is honor. You can trust me."

Shoin rose an eyebrow. "My aunt always tells me to never trust the ones who say 'trust me.'"

"Your aunt is correct," she replied. "Now are you going to tell me who else you're seeking? I promise to look surprised, for you must know I have already taken the information from your mind."

"So why ask at all?" Shoin replied.

"Etiquette," she answered. "Much like one still appreciates being given a gift, even when you already know what it will be."

Shoin laughed out loud. "Very well, then, Chieh-san," he said. "I will tell you. First, while I am here in the northern mountains I have been told to seek a certain Ox..."

o

Shiro Morito - The Rock

"A summons for Kijuro, eh? Hah!" Kijuro snatched the scroll from Miya Shoin. He patted his broad belly with his free hand in a proud and expansive gesture as he turned to grin at the other Ox bushi lingering in the courtyard. "Perhaps Morito-sama has finally noticed the great treasure lying unused in his own lands!" Several of the others laughed heartily at Kijuro's joke.

The Ox were boisterous, hearty men accustomed to the hardships of being samurai in a Minor Clan. Positioned between the warring Phoenix and Dragon, the Ox Clan had been in a constant state of readiness for months. Patrols were maintained along the borders for days on end, and extended scouting trips to investigate the position of the two Great Clans' armies were not uncommon. It was vital that the Ox Clan be aware of what was going on around them. Ignorance meant extinction in times of war; the Dragonfly Clan had already learned that lesson.

Many of the Ox bushi wore the rough fur cloaks and strange leather clothing of their Unicorn forebears, or carried strange gaijin weapons the likes of which Shoin had never seen. The young herald simply stood among them, shivered uncomfortably, and waited for one of them to invite him inside so he could find a fire to restore feeling to his fingers and toes. Even though it was summertime, Shoin found the cold of the Ox Clan's mountains intolerable. Now he knew why Agasha Chieh had just traveled on ahead to Otosan Uchi instead of accompanying him here. For their part, the Ox bushi seemed naturally immune, strolling about the freezing courtyard in light leather clothing or piecemeal armor.

"Well, my friends," Kijuro said as he paced the courtyard, "clearly a hero is needed if they are sending for me." He gestured with the rolled scroll as he spoke, as if it were a grand scepter of some sort. "I suppose I must go and save the Empire once again!"

"You'll save the Empire only if it is under attack by sake and women, Kijuro!" called one of the others. The room burst into laughter, and no one laughed harder than Kijuro.

Kijuro was a stocky man, some might even say portly as his heavy build denoted a love of rich Unicorn-style cuisine. His features were blocky and wide-set, more gaijin in appearance than most. His skin was darker as well. Shoin guessed that he must have strong Moto ancestry.

"What say you and I go get a drink?" Kijuro asked, grinning broadly at Shoin. "The first round is mine. It is my custom."

"Inside?" Shoin stuttered.

"Of course, Miya-sama," Kijuro replied, gesturing at the small sake house at the edge of the court yard.

"I would b-b-b-be m-most honored," Shoin replied, putting on a stern expression. "However, we must not dally long. You must be prepared to leave within the hour."

Kijuro arched his eyebrows in surprise. "That gives me precious little time to make arrangements with my lord. Command of my patrols must be designated to others in my absence. I must see to my children's welfare. I must feed and saddle Koji. And I had hoped to pray at my family's shrine for good fortune in my journey as well. Is such haste truly necessary, Miya-sama?"

"You will do as your are ordered, Ox," Shoin said, momentarily giving in to the stress and pain of his long journey. "I have traveled many miles to find you and have many more to go before this mission is complete. I will not have my word - the word of a Miya shisha - challenged by a samurai of a Minor Clan."

Kijuro's perpetual grin disappeared. In its place, a vicious snarl formed. The Ox took a single step forward and placed his hand upon the hilt of his strange curved sword. Shoin noticed many wide rings mounted along the back of the blade. He wondered vaguely what they were for.

Realizing his situation, the herald took two quick steps backward with a look of utter horror. Imperial Herald he may be, but he was in Ox territory now, alone. Kijuro seemed to sense Shoin's shame and fear, and quickly regained his poise as best he could, removing his hand from the hilt of his sword. "Miya-sama," he forced through clenched teeth, "may I ask your name?"

"Shoin," answered the herald quickly. "Miya Shoin, son of Miya Dosonu, herald of Hantei the 27th."

"Shoin?" asked Kijuro, chewing his lower lip thoughtfully. "Oh my. An unfortunate name in these parts, Miya-sama. There was an Ox samurai named Shoin. He was a foolish young man. Well-intentioned, to be sure, but unable to control his wagging tongue. Always saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, Shoin was. One day, he insulted a ronin, just because he thought the man beneath him. The thing is, Shoin never realized the simple truth. We're all the same, when we're alone. That ronin just cut Shoin down like a dog in the street and fled." Kijuro gestured with one hand, making a vertical cut in the air, pointing at Shoin's head as he did so. "So we have a saying here among the Ox." Kijuro leaned toward Shoin for emphasis. "A knife in the back knows no oath of fealty."

"Is that a th-threat?" Shoin replied, not knowing whether the stutter was brought on by the cold.

Kijuro looked aghast, then smiled quickly. "Of course not! It is simply a story that I remembered upon hearing the honorable herald's name. How long did I have again before we needed to leave, Miya-sama?"

"Three hours," Shoin answered with a faint grin.

"I shall be ready, Miya-sama," Kijuro grinned, bowing stiffly from the waist. "It is my honor to serve you. As I promised, the first drink is on me."

o

The Nirukti Ruins - The Phantom

"Are you prepared to serve, Toritaka Akemi?" said a voice from the darkness.

Akemi did not bother to open her eyes. In the shadowy temple, attempting to see would do more harm than simply not seeing at all. It had been among her first lessons. She could sense the presence several feet away from her, a large, looming figure. Her sensei. She sensed him moving from left to right, searching for her in the darkness.

"Toritaka Akemi," the voice said again, more impatient this time.

"Hai," she said, and could feel him turn in reaction to the sound.

"Akemi," her sensei said. "Your time has come. Are you ready?"

"Hai," she said without hesitation. What other answer could there be?

"The path will be dangerous," he said. "Already three have perished in the quest you will be given. Are you prepared to die?"

"Hai," she said.

"Are you prepared for fates worse than death?" he asked. "For those await you as well, should you fail."

"Hai," she said.

"Are you prepared for the most terrible fate of all?" he asked.

"Hai," she said. "I am prepared to find that which I seek."

There was a long pause, as if her sensei were gauging the sincerity of her comment.

"Very well, then, Toritaka Akemi," he said. "You will go to Otosan Uchi. There, a man named Otomo Kakasu has need of a Phantom Hunter."

"Hai," she said.

"There will be others," he said. "They will be foolish. "They will seek that which they are not prepared to find. You must protect them from what they will find, but you must protect them from themselves as well. Are you prepared? Will you meet with the Miya now?"

"Hai," she said.

"Have you any questions before you depart?" he asked.

"Only one, sensei," she said.

o

The Cliffs Near Kyuden Gotei - The Witness

"Why me?" Moshi Kakau asked. Waving a chunk of driftwood as he spoke. He knocked another bit of wood loose with his whittling knife and watched it tumble down the face of the cliff.

"I am uncertain, Moshi-san," Miya Shoin replied, standing several feet safely away from the edge. "I am only a messenger, and a tired one, at that. Had I known the voyage across Umi Amaterasu would be so difficult, perhaps I would have sent a pigeon."

Kakau chuckled, turning his face to the salty breeze. "I'm not very eager about the idea of making that voyage again, either," he said. "The air here isn't like the air in the city. It's strong, pure. The Yoritomo believe that if you face the wind long enough, it will cleanse your soul of all impurities."

"Is that true?" Shoin asked.

"Dunno," Kakau shrugged. "If it is, I think I'll need to sit on this cliff a while longer." Kakau's tone was humorous, but he did not smile. The young Mantis' weathered face did not look as if it smiled often.
"I realize this is abrupt, Moshi-san," Shoin said, stiffening somewhat from Kakau's informal tone, "but the summons of the Otomo--"

"I know my duty, Miya," Kakau said firmly. "All Mantis know their duty. I will be there. I will meet you at the harbor. Arrangements will be made."

Miya Shoin nodded, bowed, and quickly walked away, leaving Kakau to his whittling.

Kakau frowned into the wind again. Legend had it that decades ago, Yoritomo's father hurled himself into the sea from this very cliff to protect his son from the machinations of gaijin assassins. Yoritomo later risked his life and honor to demand recognition as a Great Clan from Toturi the First. Yoritomo's gambit during the Clan War could just as easily have destroyed the Mantis and their allies, had the Great Clans taken offense.

The Mantis were a clan that accomplished nothing without risk, without sacrifice. Ultimately, the paths of all Mantis heroes ended in death, from the first Mantis to the last. Glorious death was still death all the same.
It was a difficult lesson, but Kakau was learning it.

Kakau shook himself from his reverie. It would do no good to constantly relive the events of that fateful night. Whether the assassin had survived or not, no one could say. Yet Kakau felt strangely unfulfilled, as if the matter was not yet closed. The arrival of the Miya had proven it.

Perhaps there was still a chance that justice might be found...

Kakau sighed. Perhaps the lengthy voyage to Rokugan would give him the time he needed to put his thoughts in order.

o

Otosan Uchi - The Meeting

Miya Shoin pushed the shoji screen to one side and found a very small, very crowded room. Moshi Kakau stood beside the shisha, looking at those waiting within carefully.

"Who are these people?" Kakau asked.

"They are here for the same reason we are," Shoin replied.

"What is that?" Kakau asked.

"We shall find out," he replied, stepping into the room.

"Miya-sama!" Kijuro looked up with a grin, stood, and bowed. "It is about time you arrived! Though truth be told, I could have waited a bit longer. The ladies have been excellent company."

Utaku Yu-Pan, Toritaka Akemi, and Agasha Chieh also sat at the table. As Shoin entered, Chieh and Akemi rose and bowed as well.

"Kijuro-san has been entertaining us with his stories," Chieh said. "He is a most intriguing character." The Phoenix was dressed in robes of deep emerald, emblazoned with the mon of the Emerald Magistrates. Her eyelids and lips had been painted with a dark green pigment, giving her a strangely reptilian look.

Shoin returned the bow gracefully. "Kijuro's tales are indeed most entertaining," he agreed. "I should share the tale of the unfortunate Ox, Shoin, sometime. May I introduce Moshi Kakau, of the Mantis Clan?"

"Kakau-san," Chieh nodded at him. He bowed quickly, awkwardly.

"Everyone sit," Shoin said. "I am certain our mysterious host will not be long now that we are all gathered here."
"He can take all the time he needs," Kijuro said, sipping deeply from the cup before him. "The sake our host has here is excellent, and I for one wouldn't mind hanging around and drinking more of it. I could stay here and drink till New Year's Day. What do you say to that, Akemi?" he asked, toasting her with his cup.

The Falcon simply sat quietly at the other end of the table and watched everyone with haunted eyes.

"Pretty and quiet! Just the sort of woman I like!" Kijuro laughed and drained his cup. "If she could cook, I would not let the Emperor himself bar my path. Can you cook, Akemi?"

The Falcon said nothing.

"Did any of you have any trouble in your travels?" Shoin asked, quickly changing the subject. "I heard rumors of Tsuno activity in the provinces of--"

"Enough," Utaku Yu-Pan snarled, pounding one fist on the table. "You have us all here, half-spirit. Just like you wanted. Now where is Otomo Kakasu?"

"There is no Otomo Kakasu," Agasha Chieh said, sipping from her cup. "He is a fabrication. The Miya lied to us all."

Kakau coughed on his sake. Kijuro peered from Chieh to Shoin and back, his wide face slightly comical in its curiosity. Akemi continued to stare intently, and a low growl rose in Yu-Pan's throat.

"Chieh," Shoin said, casting the magistrate a betrayed look.

"What?" Chieh replied. "Your falsehood served its purpose. It gathered us here as you wished. I see no further purpose in the lie so I have discarded it. I told you that you could trust me, and I have proven it by showing exquisite judgment."

"You lied to me, spirit?" Yu-Pan snarled angrily. "Tell me why you tricked us all into coming here or by my grandmother's blade-"

"It was not my wish to bring you here, I was merely following the command I was given," Shoin snapped back at the Battle Maiden. "I know only that each one of us were selected specifically."

"Why?" Yu-Pan snarled. "By whom?"

"Clearly some connection that we all have," Chieh commented. "Some connection that another wishes to exploit. The only question that remains is what that connection may be."

"Connection?" Shoin asked, his tone thoughtful.

"There is no connection," Yu Pan snapped. "I have never met any of you before."

"Death," Akemi said suddenly, her low voice immediately drawing their attention. "We are all connected by a web of death, the web of the Spirit Realms. We are connected by murder..."

"Murder?" Shoin asked, looking at the Falcon. "Whose murder?"

"Whose indeed?" asked a voice from the hall as the shoji screen slid open. "That, good ladies and gentlemen, is exactly what we are here to discuss."

A thin man in green robes stepped into the room, accompanied by a massive yojimbo with a deep scar across his face. Miya Shoin's eyes widened in recognition. He rose and bowed deeply. Chieh did the same. The others simply stared.

"Is this our host, the fictitious Otomo Kakasu?" Yu-Pan asked with a chuckle, neither rising nor bowing.

"I think not," the man replied, stepping further into the light. He had a thin, angular face and a dark black patch over his right eye. "My name is Hantei Naseru. Perhaps you have heard of me." He made the remark a simple statement of fact rather than a question.

"The son of Emperor Toturi?" Utaku Yu-Pan said, rising and bowing, her face flushing with shame.

"The same," Naseru said, pleased by her show of respect, or by her discomfort, or perhaps both. "Now be seated, all of you, and be silent. I have precious little time to waste."