A Hero's Death
By Rich Wulf
Utaku Yu-Pan stood at the edge of the Doji cliffs, holding a short leather tube to one eye. The young Battle Maiden slowly scanned the horizon, looking for any clue that may shed light on the grisly murder that had occurred here.
"Anything?" Moshi Kakau asked.
"I see nothing," Yu-Pan replied. "Keep looking."
Kakau sighed. "We have been searching for hours," the Mantis moaned. "If the shugenja could find nothing further even with the use of her magic, I do not know what Shoin expects us to find."
Kakau perched on a nearby rock, elbows folded across his knees as he looked out at the sea. Yu-Pan thought that the wiry little man looked vaguely like a monkey. She kept that to herself.
"What is that you're holding?" Toritaka Akemi asked in her strange voice.
Utaku Yu Pan pulled the tube away from her eye and glanced back at the phantom-hunter with surprise. The young Falcon seldom spoke; more frequently she hovered near the other members of the group, as strange and ethereal as the spirits that were her area of expertise. Yu Pan had not even realized that the girl had followed her here from Kyuden Doji. Akemi watched her with haunted eyes, waiting several feet away, like a ghost fearful to draw too close to the living. "A spyglass," Yu-Pan replied, putting the tube back to her eye.
"What does it do?" Akemi asked.
"It makes distant places appear closer," Kakau replied. "Some Mantis captains use them, as do Unicorn scouts. It's an invention from the Burning Sands."
"Is it magic?" Akemi asked, tilting her pale face slightly as she stared at the spyglass.
"Of a sort," Kakau replied.
Yu-Pan glared at the Mantis. "It is not magic," she replied. "It is simply a trick of glass and light."
"Oh," Akemi said, a note of disappointment in her voice. She continued to watch the Mantis and Unicorn for a moment, then turned and walked back down the path toward Kyuden Doji. Kakau watched her go; Yu-Pan continued her vigil.
"There's nothing wrong with a little mystery," Kakau laughed. "You didn't have to tell her the truth."
Yu-Pan glared at the Mantis. "We are here to solve mysteries, not create new ones," she snapped. She unrolled the leather tube and tucked the glass lenses into a pouch at her belt. "Akemi is detached enough from reality without our adding to the problem."
"If you say so," Kakau shrugged.
"Why don't you climb down and search the base of the cliffs again?" Yu-Pan asked. "I will return to Kyuden Doji and report what we have found to Shoin."
"But we've found nothing," Kakau said.
Yu-Pan glared at the Mantis again. He held up his hands defensively, hopped down from his perch, and nimbly began to scale the cliffs, as much out of an urge to be away from the temperamental Battle Maiden as to obey her orders. Yu-Pan gave a sharp whistle as she strode back toward the road. Her great chestnut steed galloped toward her eagerly, pacing down the road at her side. Yu-Pan patted its neck absently as she walked. She paused for a moment, thoughtful, then turned quickly to her left.
Toritaka Akemi waited there, seated upon a flat stone. "Hello," she said.
"You again," Yu-Pan said, looking at her warily. "What do you want?"
"Do you truly believe that I am a problem?" she asked. Her tone was neither angry nor offended, merely curious.
Yu-Pan folded her arms across her chest and regarded the Falcon. "You should know, Akemi, that you are not the first Toritaka I have traveled with."
"Oh?" she asked.
"I once sought the aid of the phantom-hunters, and spent some time with the Yotogi. They taught me something of their ways. I learned that many Toritaka become absorbed in the spirits they study. They learn too much, too quickly. It makes them quite adept at dealing with spirits, but it also leaves them somewhat... erratic. They become absorbed in the past, in the lives of the dead, forgetting the world around them."
"And you think that this has happened to me?" Akemi asked.
"Yes," Yu-Pan answered bluntly. "He said to be wary of those who cling to the past, especially a past they could never have known. For instance, the Toritaka have been a Crab family for over three decades, and yet you call yourself a Falcon."
Akemi lowered her eyes and pursed her lips slightly, digesting Yu-Pan's words. Finally, she lifted her haunted gaze again. "Why did you seek the Yotogi?"
"A personal matter," Yu-Pan said.
"You brought it up," Akemi replied. "Does it have to do with Bayushi Tozasu?"
Yu-Pan scowled at Akemi. "What do you know of Tozasu?"
"My area of expertise is the spirits who returned through Oblivion's Gate," she replied. "Why do you think I was chosen for this mission? I know that Tozasu went on a rampage across the lands of the Unicorn during the War of Spirits. I know he killed many of the Utaku family. I know that many more swore vengeance upon him... before he died of fever in the Shinomen Forest."
"Which changes nothing," Yu-Pan snarled, chopping the air with one hand. "If he can return from the dead to murder my family, then not even death hide him from my revenge... He must die as my sisters died, suffer as my family suffered. I sought the Yotogi hoping to find a way to discover what Spirit Realm now houses his spirit."
"And they would not help you," Akemi said.
Yu-Pan said nothing.
"Vengeance is a heavy weight to bear," Akemi said.
"Then I am fortunate that the Fortunes gave me strength to spare," Yu-Pan hissed.
A pained look crossed Akemi's face.
Yu-Pan sneered. "If you're thinking of talking me out of it--"
"No," Akemi said, quickly shaking her head. "I think that there is little I can say that you would care to hear. I do not think... I do not think that I know you well enough to bother to save your soul."
Yu-Pan blinked, surprised by the Falcon's response. "So long as we understand each other," she said quietly. She continued walking down the road. Her great steed followed along beside her.
"Forgive me, Yu-Pan," Akemi said, catching up and walking slightly behind the Battle Maiden, "but may I ask you a personal question?"
"I have no secrets," Yu-Pan said. "Ask me what you will."
"You have such a hatred for spirits," Akemi said. "Even our leader, Shoin, who is only half-spirit, seems to draw your ire. How did one such as you come to be a Battle Maiden?"
Yu-Pan looked back at Akemi. "What do you mean?"
"Is not Utaku Shiko your leader?" Akemi asked.
"Utaku Xieng Chi is our daimyo," Yu-Pan said with a snarl.
"But Shiko is the returned daughter of Otaku herself," Akemi said. "Was it not she who determined that your family would change their name to renew their oath to Shinjo? Even a daimyo does not have that much influence. It must gall you to serve beneath such a person."
Yu-Pan continued to glare at Akemi. The phantom-hunter merely stared back with strange, haunted eyes. "If I did not know any better, Falcon, I would say you are trying to provoke me."
"I only wish to understand the depth of your thirst for vengeance," Akemi replied. "I am wondering if it will interfere with the mission. After all, it is our duty to protect the lives of the Heroes of Rokugan, all of whom are returned spirits."
"I know my duty and I know my place," Yu-Pan said slowly, "even if those I protect do not. Will there be anything else?"
"No," Akemi said, bowing her head to the Battle Maiden. "You have answered my questions in a most satisfactory manner."
"Good," she said. "Then I have a few questions for you."
"Ask me what you will," she said.
"Tell me more about the Heroes of Rokugan," Yu-Pan said.
"What do you wish to know?"
"Four of them are dead," Yu-Pan said. "Obviously that is no coincidence. Who are they? How are they connected to one another?"
"It is complicated," Akemi said.
"I have time," Yu-Pan replied.
Akemi nodded. "The histories that describe the Battle of Oblivion's Gate describe the return of the spirits from 'Jigoku.' This is largely incorrect. 'Jigoku' is a term often used by those unfamiliar with the Spirit Realms to describe any realm other than Rokugan. In fact, it is a name properly used only to describe the realm of Evil, the home of the oni and source of the Shadowlands Taint. Our blessed ancestors did not return from Jigoku, and in fact many would be insulted at the notion."
"Semantics," Yu-Pan said. "What does this have to do with the Heroes?"
"Background," Akemi said. "Please be patient, Yu-Pan."
Yu-Pan nodded curtly. They continued down the path toward Kyuden Doji.
"Those who returned through Oblivion's Gate to follow Toturi in fact hailed from two separate Spirit Realms," Akemi said. "The first was Yomi, the Realm of the Blessed Ancestors. This is home to all those who died with their kharma fulfilled. Those who returned from Yomi were great heroes, willing to set aside paradise to return and save Rokugan from evil. Shoin's father, Miya Dosonu, was such a spirit. As was our current charge, Rezan."
"He seems more a lecher than a hero," Yu-Pan replied.
"We have not yet seen him in a crisis," Akemi said. "I think that the poet may surprise you."
"I'll believe it when I see it," Yu-Pan said. "You mentioned two realms."
Akemi nodded. "The other was Toshigoku, the Realm of Slaughter. This realm is a place of torment for those who died consumed by thoughts of murder or..." Akemi looked at Yu-Pan for a moment, "or revenge. Hantei XVI and no doubt your own Bayushi Tozasu both came from this realm, as did many others. Toshigoku is realm where the spirits are locked in eternal combat, killing each other with brutal efficiency day after day, only to return fully healed to kill one another again. It is a realm of madness, and the spirits were eager to escape, eager to begin their former lives anew. The spirits of Toshigoku had agendas of their own, ranging from vengeance to - in the most extreme case - domination of the empire. It was their return that began the War of Spirits, for Hantei XVI could not have fought his war alone."
Yu-Pan seemed to consider this for several moments, then looked at the phantom-hunter again. "If the spirits of Toshigoku were the problem, then why were they not dealt with?"
Akemi looked at the Battle Maiden. "How would you deal with them?"
"Send them back where they came from," Yu-Pan said.
"Oblivion's Gate was destroyed," Akemi said. "The only way for any spirit to return would be to die again."
"They died once already," Yu-Pan said. "Surely it would not inconvenience them to do so a second time."
Akemi shook her head. "Unfortunately, it was not so simple. Not only were the spirits of Yomi and Toshigoku largely indistinguishable from one another, but some spirits of Toshigoku genuinely repented of their crimes and sought nothing more than to live in peace. In truth, some spirits felt that their new life was unnatural. They committed seppuku, returned to their own realm. Most, however, did not, and it was fortunate that they did not."
"You consider the War of Spirits to be good fortune?" Yu-Pan snapped.
"Not at all," Akemi said, "but without the benevolent shiryo and redeemed spirits of Toshigoku to lend insight into the motives and abilities of Hantei XVI's troops, those loyal to Toturi could never have defeated such a foe. How can one understand an enemy who has lived for centuries? How can you fight a general who has died daily on a battlefield of endless pain and suffering? How can you deal with such an enemy? This is how the Heroes of Rokugan were born. Powerful spirits, legends from a dozen different periods in the Empire's history, who lent their counsel, their knowledge, and in many cases their swords to Emperor Toturi's cause. With their aid, the Steel Chrysanthemum was vanquished. But the story hardly ends there. Many of the returned spirits were shocked at the damage they had caused and chose to leap from the sanctified cliffs. Others chose to remain and help rebuild, or, like Rezan, simply wandered the Empire to contemplate the new lives fate had given them."
"How many Heroes were there?" Yu-Pan asked.
"I believe there were sixty," Akemi said, "but some were granted the honor posthumously. I do not know all of those who were given the honor. Gusai, for example, was a complete surprise to me. I had not even known that he had passed through the Gate."
Yu-Pan sighed. "So some mysterious person or creature is murdering the spirits who were loyal to Toturi, and we do not even know who all of them are?"
"Admittedly, it is frustrating," Akemi said. "Perhaps Rezan knows."
"If he hasn't drowned his memory with drink," Yu-Pan said.
"I still think that your anger is misplaced, Battle Maiden," Akemi said. "Bayushi Tozasu deserves your wrath, perhaps, but Rezan and Shoin do not. Spirits such as they remained in this world to help fight against injustice such as that which happened to your family. If anything, they should be your allies."
Yu-Pan looked at the phantom-hunter, her dark eyes cold as steel. "Thank
you for your counsel, Falcon, but I ride alone."
With that, Yu-Pan turned and vaulted into her saddle, galloping down the road toward Kyuden Doji. Akemi coughed and waved away the dust of the Battle Maiden's passing, the continued walking, alone.
Kakau whistled a soft tune to himself as he passed through the halls of Kyuden Doji. Night had fallen over the Crane castle. The walls of pale sapphire and ivory were now painted in moonlight. Though Kakau hardly considered himself to be a romantic soul, it hurt his heart to look upon such beauty. He had wandered the castle for several hours since his return from the cliffs. With the exception of the occasional suspicious glance from a Doji guardsman, his Crane hosts were remarkably tolerant of the curious young Mantis. He wondered if they would be so tolerant if he hadn't arrived in the company of an Imperial Herald. He guessed that they would not.
Kakau's wanderings brightened his mood considerably. So far, this mission had not been enjoyable. The others often ignored him outright, or open loathing in the case of the Battle Maiden. Only the Ox seemed to treat him as an equal. Ironically, Kijuro wasn't the sort of person Kakau wanted to have any sort of association with. The leader, Shoin, seemed like a decent sort but was always busy dealing with officials or investigating leads. Kakau was left to conduct his share of the investigation alone. Having come from a large family and lived most of his life among a close-knit crew of Yoritomo sailors, the young Mantis did not thrive on solitude.
Satisfied with his tour of the castle, Kakau returned to the guest wing. A light song drifted through the halls. Kakau paused a moment to listen. The voice was a woman's, deep and full. He thought that it must be Agasha Chieh. Could the shugenja still be awake at such an hour? Perhaps she did not need to sleep. He followed the song to a door at the end of the hall and listened. The words were High Rokugani, the ancient ceremonial language of the samurai. The imagery was complex and difficult to understand, but it seemed to speak of a deep loss, an ancient commitment broken. She seemed extraordinarily lonely. Kakau determined that he would talk to her; perhaps she would understand.
He knocked at the door, and the singing stopped. A moment later, the door slid open. Kakau blinked. It was not Chieh who answered, but Rezan, the ronin poet. His long hair stuck out of his topknot in disarray and his kimono hung awkwardly on his shoulders.
"Yes?" he asked quickly. "What is it, Mantis? Speak."
"Er..." Chieh replied, confused. "I thought that I heard Chieh in there," he said.
"Oh," Rezan seemed to fidget uncomfortably. "Surely you must be imagining things. Perhaps there is something I can help you with?" Rezan quickly stepped into the hall and shut the shoji screen behind him. Adjusting his daisho at his side, the poet gestured down the hallway for Kakau to follow him.
Kakau glanced back at the door. "I thought you had requested a room on the first floor, close to the gardens."
"Ah..." Rezan paused for a moment, smoothing his hair back over his head "I did. I was merely exploring the castle. Much like yourself, no?"
"Of course," Kakau said morosely, and let the matter drop.
Rezan looked at the Mantis, his expression one of concern. "Looks like you have a lot on your mind," he said.
"It's personal," Kakau said.
"I didn't ask," the poet replied. "Just making an observation. In my experience, it's best not to deal with grief alone. Don't have to share it, mind you, just don't deal with it alone."
"I don't think a geisha is going to help," Kakau said.
"Never thought I'd hear a Mantis say that," Rezan said. "You're the one who knew Gusai, aren't you?"
"Did Shoin tell you that?" Kakau asked.
"Guessed," Rezan said. "You remind me of him. Grim,
unsatisfied, generally surly." Rezan gestured vaguely with one hand.
Kakau frowned at the poet. "You knew Gusai."
"I met him once," Rezan nodded. "I'm sorry to hear of his murder. He deserved better."
Kakau only nodded.
"I hope he found what he was looking for," Rezan said.
"What do you mean?" Kakau asked.
Rezan looked at the Mantis. "You mean he never told you? The trip through Oblivion's Gate was never an accident. Every spirit that passed through, blessed ancestor or spirit of slaughter, was connected somehow to this world. We all came back looking for something, something important. I just hope Gusai had a chance to tie up his loose ends before he died."
Kakau was quiet for a long time. "What did you come back seeking, poet?"
Rezan smiled slightly. "You'll laugh."
Kakau said nothing.
"I came back looking for a woman," he said.
Kakau rose an eyebrow.
"I see you're not surprised," Rezan replied. "At least you didn't laugh. In my last life, I spent three brief years married to a daughter of the Hantei before I was killed in a duel. She died shortly thereafter, pining away for me..."
"Seems fitting, for a poet," Kakau said.
"Yes, well, I really wish she hadn't bothered," Rezan said. "The harridan. Those were the worst three years of my life. She was moody, spoiled rotten, and not nearly as beautiful as those poems I wrote make her out to be. As we were bound in life, I was exposed to the singularly unpleasant experience of spending over two centuries at her side in the fields of Yomi."
"You came back through Oblivion's Gate to escape your wife?" Kakau said, shocked.
Rezan did not answer for some time. "No, that's not it at all," he said. "Some time ago... time is difficult to measure in the Spirit Realms... she finally accepted that I did not love her. She disappeared. She returned to this world, reincarnated in mortal form. It was like a weight was lifted from my shoulders, for a time."
"For a time?" Kakau said.
Rezan nodded. "Until I realized I missed her," he said. "I didn't realize what I'd tossed aside until it was gone. When Oblivion's Gate opened, I leapt at the chance to return. For thirty years, I've been searching for her... though I haven't the slightest clue who she could be. She could be a cat, for all I know." He shrugged.
Kakau gave the poet a confused look. "If you're so loyal to your wife, then why are you such a womanizer?"
"I see a bit of her beauty in every woman I look upon," he replied. "If I cannot have all of her, I can at least have a bit at a time. And who knows? She could be any one of them... or all of them." Rezan shrugged again and chuckled. "Anyway, that's my tale, Mantis. Now that you know it, you realize that you'll have to share yours with me as well. You'll have to tell me how you chanced to meet with the noble Gusai."
"Of course," Kakau said.
"But not tonight," Rezan said. "The hour is late, I'm quite tired, and apparently Kijuro has talked Shoin into returning to Shiro Morito. So we'll have that to deal with." Rezan sighed. "I hate the mountains. Good night, Moshi-san."
Kakau merely nodded and continued wandering the halls of Kyuden Doji, thinking of the days to come.
Glossary of Characters and Terms
Agasha Chieh - A mysterious Phoenix Clan magistrate whose appearance seems as prone to sudden change as her temper. She has been assigned to Miya Shoin's party of magistrates.
Hantei XVI - The Steel Chrysanthemum. One of the most feared Emperors in history, he returned through Oblivion's Gate to attempt to recreate his sadistic and despotic rule.
Heroes of Rokugan - The title granted to a group of returned spirits who allied with Emperor Toturi against the army of Hantei XVI.
Kijuro - A good natured Ox Clan samurai. He has been assigned to Miya Shoin's party of magistrates.
Miya Shoin - A young Imperial Herald now charged with investigating the murders of the Heroes of Rokugan. He is the son of a spirit and a mortal, and unlike many half-spirits he retains the strange ethereal glow many spirits radiate.
Moshi Kakau - A Mantis sailor who happened to witness the murder of Gusai, a Hero of Rokugan. He has been assigned to Miya Shoin's party of magistrates.
Oblivion's Gate - A portal connected to all the Spirit Realms, once located deep in the heart of the Shadowlands. By opening the gate, the Lying Darkness planned to consume the essence of all who had ever existed, living and dead. Many spirits of the dead returned through the gate to fight the Darkness, and were granted mortal bodies by the Gate's strange magic. The gate was sealed and destroyed by the Phoenix Clan Master of Fire, Isawa Hochiu.
Rezan - A duelist who, by extraordinary circumstance, gained an undeserved reputation as the Empire's finest poet. He died over two centuries ago, and returned through Oblivion's Gate to join the Heroes of Rokugan. He is currently under the protection of Miya Shoin's party.
Toritaka Akemi - A mysterious Crab Clan phantom-hunter and an expert on returned spirits. Her family was once the Falcon Clan, and she prefers that designation. She has been assigned to Miya Shoin's party of magistrates.
Toturi I - The Emperor of Rokugan, the first spirit to return through Oblivion's Gate. He was recently murdered by a new breed of demonic creature known as an Onisu, leaving behind four heirs to the throne and no clear succession.
Utaku Yu-Pan - A vengeful Unicorn Clan Battle Maiden whose family was murdered by the returned spirit Bayushi Tozasu. She has been assigned to Miya Shoin's party of magistrates.
War of Spirits - A conflict instigated by Hantei XVI, the Steel Chrysanthemum, when he tried to overthrow Toturi and restore his own rule. He was supported by many spirits who had returned through Oblivion's Gate.
Yotogi - The spiritual leader of the Toritaka family, blessed with the ability to see and communicate with spirits of all types. Since their absorption by the Crab, the daimyo of the Toritaka and the Yotogi are not necessarily the same person.