A Hero's Death Part 5

Miya Shoin drew his kimono tighter about his shoulders and shivered in the cool mountain winds. It was his heaviest robe, one that had always been almost uncomfortably warm in court, but even though winter had faded, the mountains were still very cold indeed. It had not been a particularly pleasant journey from the Crane lands, but Kijuro had sworn to Shoin that the Ox Clan could protect Rezan. The normally jovial samurai had been so sincere in his assurances, so uncharacteristically somber in his demeanor that Shoin had believed him. And so the party had been on the road for nearly two weeks now, traveling the long miles through the foothills toward the northern edge of the Dragon Heart Plain. The lands of the Ox Clan.

Even now, Shoin could hear Kijuro's laughter (by the Fortunes, was that man ever quiet?) echoing across the peaks even though he and Toritaka Akemi had ridden ahead to check for seasonal obstacles in the road. In retrospect, perhaps the burly warrior's offer of fur coats hadn't been quite so barbaric as Shoin had first thought.

A soft clucking sound came from Shoin's left. He glanced over irritably at Agasha Chieh, who seemed impervious to the weather despite her silken garments. No doubt her magic kept her from suffering the effects of the cold. She was regarding him with that half-amused, half-condescending expression that irritated him so. "You would really stoop to wearing the flesh of dead animals to overcome your discomfort? I would have thought better of you, Shoin-sama."

The young herald scowled, his discomfort giving fire to his anger. "I told you to stop that, Chieh. I am in charge here, and you will do as you are told. Stay out of my mind."

The Phoenix gave an exasperated sigh and threw her hands up. "What am I supposed to do? I cannot read the thoughts of anyone else in our party! It's as if I were blind!"

Shoin looked surprised, both by her reaction and her strange confession. "What do you mean? The others' minds are closed to you? Why?"

"I don't know!" she snapped at him. "Akemi's mind is full of shadows and spirits I cannot comprehend. Yu-Pan has little else besides violence in her thoughts. And Rezan…I simply cannot sense anything from him at all! You are the only one whose thoughts I can sense, and so I do it purely out of habit."

"What of Kakau?" Shoin asked.

Chieh grew very quiet. "I do not wish to discuss it."

Shoin thought carefully for a moment. "His thoughts are shielded from you, aren't they? He is too well trained for you to read his thoughts."

"He is a Mantis!" Chieh hissed, the disdain in her voice very clear. "They are little better than pirates and bandits! It must be something else that shields his thoughts from me."

Shoin mulled over her words. It was clearly a point of contention with her, the first weakness in her seemingly impregnable armor. He would have to remember this in the future, but now was not the time to press the issue. "Surely you can read Kijuro's thoughts, Chieh. They are blatantly obvious to everyone within the same province." He gestured northward, where the group's outriders rode far ahead of the group.

Chieh looked disgusted. "I assure you, you should be very glad that you are unable to read the Ox's mind. I could find nothing of any importance before being rebuffed by a wall of filth. I shall not attempt such a thing again."

Shoin made a show of stroking his chin thoughtfully, but in truth he was simply concealing a wry grin. Kijuro, while overbearing and infuriating, was nonetheless strangely difficult to dislike, and the thought of the ample, honest man thwarting the arrogant Agasha Chieh was pleasant indeed.

He was still trying to decide how to respond to Chieh when he heard Kijuro calling his name from the road ahead. "Forgive me, Chieh-san," he said, smiling. "It seems the Ox needs my attention."

* * * * *

Shoin found Toritaka Akemi still astride her horse, impassive as always. Kijuro had dismounted, however, and was pacing the ground along the side of the road. His normal jovial expression was gone, replaced by a look of smoldering rage. It was a look Shoin had seen only once before, and did not wish to see again. "What's happened?" he asked without preamble.

"There is a dead man in the woods just off the edge of the road," Akemi said.

"His name," growled Kijuro, "was Isuto." The Ox samurai's face was flushed with outrage. Each word threatened to erupt into a shout. "He was a warden commissioned with patrolling this road. He was a just and honest man. If you care so much for spirits," he glared at Akemi, "then you will honor his."

Akemi bowed her head slightly. "There was no disrespect intended."

"Kijuro," Shoin said softly, redirecting the surly Ox's attention back to the matter at hand. "What reason would anyone have to kill an Ox sentry? Why would this have been done?"

The broad samurai clenched his fists in anger. "Isuto was…fond of drink. He was a good man, but on cold nights he would drink sake to stay warm. Most times, he was hopelessly drunk by midnight. Anyone who wanted to get past him could easily have moved through the woods or simply have crept past him in the night."

Shoin pondered this for a moment. "You think this death was unnecessary?"

"It was a senseless murder," Kijuro said flatly.

"Our prey does not think as we do," Akemi said. "Violence is its first and natural response. If it is a human, it has a twisted and diseased mind."

Frowning, Shoin asked "What else might it be, Akemi?"

The phantom hunter only shrugged. "There are more things in this world than we can comprehend, much less give a name to."

"I do not care what it is, man or beast," Kijuro said through clenched teeth. "I will not allow anything to treat my clansmen with such callous disregard. Bad enough that the clans look on us with such blatant, hypocritical disdain, but to allow some depraved beast to casually tear my brothers apart senselessly? No. No!" Kijuro was literally seething with rage. To Shoin he seemed on the verge of an explosion.

"You shall have your revenge, Kijuro. We will find the culprit."

"Oh, yes we will, Shoin-sama," said Kijuro with an odd, dangerous smile. "I know where he is going."

"What?" Shoin gasped. "What do you mean? Where?"

"The eastern provinces of lord Morito," the Ox answered. "Yasuki Kaneko lives there, as a guest of Morito."

Shoin was speechless. "Do you mean to tell me that you knew where one of the Heroes of Rokugan was ever since our mission began? And you have just now decided to tell us?

Kijuro stared at Shoin expressionlessly. "And risk others hearing? The less people who know of her location, the safer she is. I told you enough to bring you here, and I was going to take you there in any event. Keeping you ignorant was simply a safety precaution."

The herald frowned. Kijuro was right. If he had told them of Kaneko's whereabouts in Otosan Uchi, someone would no doubt have discovered the truth. There were no secrets in that city. Realizing it was true did not make accepting it any easier. "You still should have told us," he said. Shoin reached up and adjusted his topknot absently, thinking about the logistics of their situation. Finally, he asked "How long will it take us to get there, Kijuro?"

"Two days."

"And how long would it take you to get there?"

"Just under a day," Kijuro answered flatly.

"Very well," Shoin nodded. "Take Yu-Pan, Akemi, and Kakau. They can keep pace with you. Chieh is not a skilled rider and would only slow you down. If Isotu is any indication, we are already behind the killer. I will take Chieh and announce our party to Lord Morito. We have no wish to offend your lord by moving through his provinces without his knowledge."

"Send Yu-Pan and Kakau on." Kijuro quickly mounted his horse with a deftness that belied his size. He glanced once at Akemi. "Keep up if you can." Without another word, he spurred his horse to a gallop and disappeared to the north. The Crab samurai-ko glanced at Shoin, who nodded.

"Keep an eye on him, Akemi. Do not let his passions overwhelm his sensibilities, whatever they may be. Yu-Pan will doubtless catch up with you very shortly."

Akemi nodded. "As you wish, Shoin-sama. I must ask you, however, if you think it wise to have only you and Chieh protecting Rezan?"

Shoin grimaced. "Chieh could probably do the task alone, but to leave her by herself would be a wound to her humility. No doubt she will take little offense if I leave the most dispensable member of the party along with her. Myself."

For the first time since he had met her, Toritaka Akemi favored Shoin with a slight smile. Then she quickly disappeared over the next hill in pursuit of Kijuro.

* * * * *

Many hours later, the four riders slowed to a trot to allow their horses a moment's rest. Kijuro and Yu-Pan were accustomed to the habit, as both their people had a great reverence for the welfare of their steed. Akemi and Kakau simply followed their lead without question. None of them had spoken since they left Shoin and Chieh miles behind them. It was Yu-Pan who finally broke the silence. "Why does this Yasuki Kaneko live in the Ox lands rather than with her own family?"

Kijuro shrugged absently. "She and my lord Morito became allies during the War of Spirits. When war broke out in her family's lands," he glanced sidelong at Akemi, "she chose to leave. I suppose she felt uncomfortable fielding questions about the Yasuki family's ancestry." He shrugged again. "Here, she is left to her own pursuits and treated as a welcome guest, not a living legend. I would not wish a burden like that on anyone."

Yu-Pan frowned thoughtfully. It was not something she had considered, but Kijuro's words rang true. She thought of Utaku Shiko and the burden she must bear. It was not a pleasant thought at all.

"Akemi," said Kijuro suddenly, "if our quarry is a spirit, how do I kill it?"

"That depends," said the dark maiden. "There are many kinds of spirits, and no two are the same. The spirits that came through Oblivion's Gate, for example, can be killed by anything that would kill a mortal. Many can be dealt with in ways other than violence. If, for instance, our killer is one of the vengeful ghosts I am familiar with, we can banish it from this realm simply by aiding in the reconciliation of whatever…"

"I asked how to kill it." Kijuro stared at her, his gaze withering.

Akemi lapsed into one of her odd silences, so Kakau answered the question in her stead. "Most spirits, though certainly not all, are vulnerable to crystal. Its balance and purity cause great pain to such entities."

Yu-Pan looked at Kakau questioningly. "What do you know of spirits, Mantis?"

The Moshi met Yu-Pan's gaze without flinching. "When you have sailed the Sea of Shadows as I have, battle maiden, then perhaps I will discuss it with you."

Kijuro cut the two off before yet another argument could break out. "I recall such stories from my youth. I did not know if they were true or merely peasant superstition. Thankfully, we Ox are a simple people who follow our instincts."

"What do you mean?" Yu-Pan asked suspiciously.

Kijuro did not respond. "The horses have rested. We should be able to reach Kaneko in the next gallop." He spurred his steed on once more, leaving the others to follow.

* * * * *

It was after nightfall when they finally reached the town where Yasuki Kaneko had made her home. Only one road led into the town, and Yu-Pan could see the torchlight of a watch station. Kijuro rode slightly ahead of the group, and when he pulled up at the station, Yu-Pan could make out the friendly calls of the guards over the hoof-beats of her powerful warhorse. Kijuro shouted something to them in return, and although she couldn't make it out, Yu-Pan could not help but respect the sudden change in the guards. Each grabbed their weapons and fanned out from the station immediately, clearly searching the ground for a trail or any sign of passage.

Kijuro swung down from his horse. "The guard will rouse the others and search the village. I will go to Kaneko's home. Come with me if you wish." With that, he dropped into surprisingly quick run through the village streets toward a large building near the center.

"I am growing weary of playing catch-the-Ox," snarled Yu-Pan as she dismounted.

Akemi leapt down easily from her horse. "He believes the killer might hear our horses," she offered as she broke into a run. "Kijuro still thinks of our prey as a man, even though all signs point to some sort of creature. He will need us if he is to survive."

"Kijuro's long term survival is not something I would wish to gamble on," muttered Kakau as he dismounted.

The four warriors crossed the village in mere moments, moving silently through the poorly lit streets. Kijuro led them to a wealthy home near the center of the village, one that did not appear particularly lavish at first glance, but upon closer inspection appeared to have been constructed of the finest materials. It was likely that the interior was equally as luxurious.
Yu-Pan saw Kijruo draw his blade and creep toward the door. Instinctively, she did the same, covering his back. He was crass and nearly unbearable to be around most of the time, but the past day had proven him a skilled and dedicated warrior. Yu-Pan found herself respecting him, however grudgingly. She looked around for Akemi, but the phantom hunter was nearly invisible in the darkness of the courtyard in which they stood. Kakau, however, was right behind her. Kijuro slid the door open silently, gesturing that he would take the eastern corridor and for Yu-Pan to take the western one. She nodded and veered to the left, noticing that Kakau followed Kijuro.

The inside of the house was only barely illuminated by stray light from a lantern or two somewhere within the seemingly endless internal rooms. Yu-Pan moved fluidly through them, her eyes accustomed to the darkness from years of drills on the moonless plains of the Utaku lands. A flicker of motion in the corner of her eye sent the battle maiden spinning low and away to the right even as her blade flashed out toward her unseen foe. Expecting to feel the tug of resistance as her blade sliced through flesh, Yu-Pan was unprepared for the hand that caught her sword arm by the wrist.

Toritaka Akemi held Yu-Pan's wrist, staving off the blow that would have cut her down. There was neither fear nor recrimination in the woman's eyes, however; she merely gestured silently down the hall in the direction Kijuro had gone. Feeling shame for nearly killing her ally, Yu-Pan nodded wordlessly.

Together, the two women crept down the hallway, retracing the steps of their burly companion. There were at least a dozen rooms on this floor, and moving cautiously it might take them longer than Yu-Pan liked to secure the house. Stealth was not her forte, however, and so she allowed Akemi to take the lead.

There was a great shout from a room farther down the hall, followed by a crashing noise and the sounds of fighting. Both women, seasoned warriors, immediately launched themselves down the hallway and crashed through the doorway from which the sound had emanated.

It was like some sort of twisted nightmare. A woman lay against the wall as if thrown by some great force. She held a wakizashi in her hand and there was jagged, bloodied streak across the surface of her kimono. In the center of the room was Kijuro, katana fallen from his hand. He seemed to be wrestling with something, but Yu-Pan could not tell what it was. It was as if a patch of the night had come to life and crept into the house. Kakau stood across the room from the woman, his face pale and his sword clearly shaking in his hand.

Akemi reacted instantly, leaping across the room in a single bound to place her own body between the wounded woman and the thing Kijuro fought. She held her katana out with a single hand while retrieving something from within the folds of her kimono with the other. She withdrew some sort of seal with an attached ribbon and held it to face Kijuro.

Her momentary daze broken, Yu-Pan screamed with all the fury of a thousand battle-crazed cavalry and hurled herself across the room toward the patch of darkness. She caught a momentary glimpse of something within the shadows, something almost human, and she lunged for it. The room seemed to slow down around her as she crossed the room into the darkness. Although the darkness enveloped her, she could feel something as she slammed her body into the patch of night. There was a grunt of pain from Kijuro, followed almost instantly by a ruthless, victorious laugh as the Ox landed a counterattack. A horrible hissing sound came from the blackness, and Yu-Pan found herself being thrown back across the room and out into the hallway. She could see Kijuro being similarly tossed aside.

The blackness suddenly flowed toward an open window away from the others. Akemi, who had attached the strange ribbon she carried to the hilt of her blade darted across the room to launch a single attack, but their bizarre opponent was simply too fast. It disappeared through the window and into the courtyard beyond, leaving Akemi to bolt out the room's other door to circle around toward the rear of the house.

Yu-Pan tried to follow her companion, but the aching in her ribs told her that to move might cause serious damage. Instead, she slowly got to her feet and limped back into the room where Kijuro had also regained his footing. The battle maiden assessed the room quickly and pointed to the unmoving woman clutching her sword. "Is she dead?"

"No," said Kijuro. "We were just in time. I managed to wound it." He held out his hand. In his palm was a sliver of crystal the size and thickness of a large man's finger. "I found this years ago during one of my first assignments for Lord Morito in the mountains to the north. I brought it with me when Shoin came to take me to Otosan Uchi."

Yu-Pan nodded. "Then it was a spirit after all."

Unbelievably, Kijuro laughed. He reached to the room's low table and brought a candle closer to the pair. "I think not, Yu-Pan." In the light of the candle, she could clearly see that the crystal shard was covered in blood. "Do you know of any spirit beings who bleed this color? I do not, and I will wager our friend Akemi will say the same. Kakau?"

The Mantis looked up at the Ox shakily, his face still empty of color. "I have seen none that bleed red, no. I…I am sorry, noble samurai. I was gripped by some unfathomable terror when I entered the room. I could not move. It was as if I were enchanted somehow."

Akemi reappeared suddenly in the doorway. With a simple shake of her head, she confirmed what Yu-Pan had already suspected: once in the open night, there was no way to find whatever they had fought. It simply blended in with the darkness too well. "That was no spirit," she said simply. "I can sense spirits, and that was not one. And even if I could not, no spirit strikes its victims with claws such as these." Akemi dropped a crude knife on the floor. It was clearly made of what appeared to be jagged obsidian and stone. "A weapon such as this would leave ragged wounds, much like those an animal might make."

"And any shugenja could enwrap a man in darkness such as we saw," added Yu-Pan. "Our prey is no spirit."

"No," added Kijuro, his grin finally reappearing, albeit with a darker edge than the others had seen before. "It was a man. And there is no man in the Empire that Kijuro cannot kill."