A Hero's Death Part 6

Moshi Kakau shifted uncomfortably in the saddle. He and his companions had been riding almost without stop for nearly four days now. The last time he had truly been able to rest had been in the home of the grateful Yasuki Kaneko. There, Kakau had enjoyed a meager four hours of rest while his allies Kijuro and Toritaka Akemi scoured the wilderness around the village for signs of the assassin whose plot they had foiled. It was only when the light of dawn broke over the horizon that they had found the blood trail.

Kakau watched in silence as Kijuro dismounted and scoured the underbrush once more. While the Ox's good cheer had returned once they began tracking their prey, his jokes and laughter were of a much darker vein than the group was used to. His constant discussion of women and drink had been replaced by macabre jests about what he would do when and if they finally found their prey. Kakau found them terribly disturbing, although Utaku Yu-Pan did not seem to mind and Akemi, as always, had no apparent reaction. She was simply there, aiding Kijuro in his tracking.

The tracking itself had been nothing short of miraculous. The sparse blood trail the hunters had discovered the first day had long since disappeared, leaving very few clues at all for the party to follow. The only thing that saved them was Kijuro's encyclopedic knowledge of the Ox Clan lands. It seemed as though he knew every square inch of the vast plains and rolling, forested hills. Kijuro was a man of many surprises.

Kakau had surprises of his own, of course, but hopefully he would not need them until they found their prey. Perhaps, if the Fortunes smiled up on him, he would not need them even then. He closed his eyes and shook his head. This had become much more complex than it had first sounded when Shoin approached him on the Mantis Islands.

Yu-Pan pulled up beside Kakau's horse and regarded the sailor strangely. "This has been a difficult ride. You have held up well, Kakau. This is not at all like the ships you are used to, I imagine."

"No," agreed Kakau. "No, it certainly is not. I have heard members of other clans claim that the motion of the waves made them feel ill. I always thought that was ridiculous. Of course, I never realized that one could experience the same sensation from riding a horse for long enough."

Yu-Pan actually smiled. Kakau would not have thought such a thing possible. "You should be careful, Kakau-san, else one might think you were a Unicorn."

"Oh?" Kakau adopted a strange expression. "I did not realize the Unicorn found walking to be completely unbearable." This remark was followed by an odd inhalation that made the sailor at first believe Yu-Pan was choking, but he realized it was simply laughter. First a smile and now laughter. It was strange how things had changed so much in so short a time.

"What is going on back there?" roared Kijuro from the front. "Are you having a good time without Kijuro? Unthinkable!" The Ox flashed his familiar, broad smile. "Sadly, you shall have to wait for my company. There is an assassin who longs for my steel, and I shall not disappoint him!" Kijuro laughed uproariously.

Somehow, Kakau did not find the any humor in his friend at all.

* * * *

Agasha Chieh carefully packed her meager belongings into her travel pack. Her desire to be free of this abysmal place was exceeded only by her irritation at having been required to be overly cordial to the churlish Ox. She, Shoin, and Rezan had rushed for nearly two days to reach Shiro Morito and present themselves after the others had gone on, and then protocol and common courtesy had required an additional two days of polite greetings and introductions. It was nearly unbearable.

Her possessions secure, Chieh stepped to the door of her 'chambers' (barracks might have been a more appropriate term) and slid back the screen, only to find Miya Shoin standing there. He took a step backwards, surprised by her sudden exit. "Chieh-san, I was just coming to collect you. Are you ready?"

"I have been ready for nearly two days," she muttered so that her voice would not carry. "I have no interest in remaining in this dank den any longer than absolutely necessary."

Shoin frowned, now a familiar expression to Chieh. "That seems odd coming from someone who has spent as much time in monasteries as you have."

"Monasteries are clean," she said curtly. "Is Rezan prepared?"

"Yes," Shoin said. "He still refuses to stay, however. It seems he will be accompanying us." He shook his head. "He is a difficult man, Rezan." He looked back to Chieh. "He has prepared his horse and awaits us in the court chambers below."

Chieh laughed. "Court chambers? You will be a diplomat yet, Shoin." The two of them continued down the hall and down a roughly hewn stone staircase to the vast, open chamber in which Morito held court. Admittedly, it was extremely sparse in furnishings, but the Ox were a hardy and stern people who required few comforts. Shoin admired them for that.

"Shoin-sama! Chieh-chan!" The two of them turned to look toward the voice to find Rezan beckoning them. He had just finished speaking with a particularly vivacious young woman, a member of the Moshi family by her dress, and had his most charming, slightly crooked grin on his face. "Are we prepared to depart?"

"Yes," said Shoin quickly, before Chieh had a chance to say something impolite. "The letter we received indicated that the others left the village heading in a westerly direction, so if we travel southwest, we should be able to meet them in a day or two."

"Outstanding!" exclaimed Rezan. "My young friend Shimiko," he glanced toward the Moshi, "was just telling me of the beautiful country in this part of the Empire. I was a bit distracted on our journey here, so I am hoping to enjoy the scenery on the trip back."

"Your friend, indeed," said Chieh dryly. "I am quite sure she found your company delightful after being restricted to a family full of unwashed sailors."

"Chieh-chan," chided Rezan. "Not all Moshi shugenja are female. But yes, you are correct. She certainly did enjoy my company." The poet raised one eyebrow suggestively, much to the shugenja's disgust.

"Dealing with you people is simply exhausting," sighed Shoin. "Before you two begin slandering one another shamelessly, let us try to focus on our duty. To me, the description in the letter Kakau sent us sounded like a Shadow Beast, one of the minions of the Goju. I have read much of them."

"No," said Rezan, shaking his head vehemently. "The Goju are extinct. I witnessed it myself at the Battle of Oblivion's Gate."
"Perhaps so, perhaps not," said Chieh, "but their power remains."

"What does that mean?" asked Shoin with an irritated expression.

"The Lying Darkness was destroyed, as Rezan says," continued Chieh, "but the power that that entity and its minions drew upon still exists. All that exists is comprised by the five elements. And to balance those elements, there is Nothing. It was Nothing that the Darkness drew upon to fuel its mad lust for power."

"Could Nothing still be accessed by others?" asked Shoin.

Chieh shrugged. "It is possible. It would require some sort of supernatural link, such as an entity like the Darkness, or even a particularly powerful servant of the Darkness itself that survived its master's demise."

"Then it could be them," said Rezan, strangely subdued. "They could still exist."

"Possibly," said Chieh, shrugging again. "As Akemi has said, there are more things in the world than we understand. We cannot know until we find the assassin."

"Then let us go," said Shoin firmly. "It is time this was ended."

* * * *

It was amazing how alive the forest was. Kakau had never really spent much time on the mainland, as the jungles of his home were far too dangerous to spend any time there. Truthfully, he had spent the vast majority of his life either in study or on the seas. He had always imagined the forest and a quiet and still place, but there was a cacophony of noises assaulting him as he and Yu-Pan crept quietly through the underbrush.

"This is insane," he whispered under his breath to the Battle Maiden.

She smirked back at him. "Far more interesting than fishing, don't you think?"

Kakau could not suppress a grin. It really was more interesting than simply throwing a net into the ocean, although he still found the idea of what they were doing strangely repellent. "If we are successful, will you really… really… "

"Eat it, yes," whispered Yu-Pan. "Among the Unicorn, venison is considered a delicacy. You do not have to come with me, if you don't wish to."

He was about to respond when Yu-Pan held up her hand suddenly. Both of them stopped moving. She had heard something, but her frustrated scowl and scanning of the surrounding foliage meant that she could not find her prey.

After a moment's consideration, Kakau crouched low to the ground and then sprang upward suddenly, catching a low hanging branch and swinging himself up into the limbs of the tree. He moved from branch to branch silently until he could see above the underbrush. There, some distance ahead, a stag stood immobile in the brush. It had not yet seen Kakau. With careful hand gestures, he pointed out the animal's location to Yu-Pan, who drew her bow and fired a single, true shot.

Grinning, the sailor dropped back down to the forest floor. "An excellent shot, Yu-Pan."

"An impressive feat, Kakau," she returned. "I thought you were a sailor?"

"Well," Kakau said, "I was confused. I thought that was the mast." The forest rang with their good-natured laughter.

* * * *

"Thank you for joining me, Akemi. What we need to discuss is not for the ears of others."

The phantom hunter strode through the woods at Kijuro's side, silently as ever. They proceeded this way for quite some time until, finally, curiosity overcame her. "Kijuro, what is it you need to tell me? Is it about the assassin? We have little time for theatrics."

"It is indeed about the assassin, and also about you. You are no Toritaka," responded Kijuro. "You are not even a Crab. And if you have been lying to us since we met," he placed his hand on the hilt of his katana and inched it slightly out of its saya, "then you must be the assassin." He lunged forward to attack, but the lithe woman evaded his blow easily. He followed up his strike with a flurry of powerful attacks, but Akemi vaulted into the limbs of a tree, safely out of his reach.

Finally, after weeks and months together, Kijuro finally saw a genuine emotion from the woman he knew as Toritaka Akemi. Rage. "You idiot," she snarled. "I am no assassin! I am here to kill it, whatever it may be!"

The Ox savored this for a moment, then cautiously lowered his blade. "Then I am correct. You are a Shosuro. One of the butei."

"Yes," she admitted. "I am Shosuro Tani, master actress of the Scorpion." She looked at Kijuro curiously. "How did you know?"

"There are many things," he said. "Your fighting style is not an exact duplicate of that taught by the Toritaka, nor are your mannerisms exactly those of one from their provinces. You have the accent more of a Kaiu than a Toritaka. And this," he pulled a small seal with a tattered ribbon from his kimono. "You used this when attacking Kaneko's would be assassin. It is not a writ against spirits, but one against the Darkness."

She frowned. "How did you know that?"

Kijuro grinned. "Little one, I have connections you cannot imagine. There is nothing I cannot find out, given sufficient time and curiosity. We have had plenty of time, and you have certainly sparked my curiosity."

Akemi looked dejected. "I was sent to discover whether or not the assassin was a creature of the Lying Darkness. So far, I have found nothing. I have failed my lord."

"Wait until we find our prey. Then we shall judge your merit."

Akemi regarded him frankly. "Will you reveal what you know to the others?"

Kijuro did not have a chance to respond, for the forest suddenly rang out with a heart-wrenching scream.

"The camp," said Kijuro.

* * * *

The party's campsite resembled the aftermath of a horrid battle. Blood covered the ground. Kijuro's first thought was that Yu-Pan and Kakau had been killed, but that notion was quickly dispelled when he saw Kakau emerge from the bushes, wiping his mouth and looked extremely pale. Yu-Pan he spied crouched beside the dead form of her horse, cradling the dead beast in her arms and weeping unabashedly. She looked up at the sound of the two of them crashing through the brush.

"You!" she shrieked, her voice raw with grief. "You were supposed to be guarding the camp!" She drew her katana and stepped forward as if she would attack him, but Kakau reached out to stop her. She looked at him with hatred in her eyes, but did not strike the sailor.

"I…" Kijuro began.

"It is my fault, Yu-Pan-sama," Akemi broke in. "I was not cautious in my steps and I fell down an embankment." She gestured back toward the forest. "Kijuro heard me fall and thought that I had been attacked. He was coming to my aid."

"The assassin must have doubled back to face us," Kakau said. "Had we been here, who knows what might have happened?"

"Then he is near, and on foot," said the Ox decisively. "Yu-Pan," he continued, his voice softening, "I am truly sorry for your loss. If it is my blood you wish, you may have it. But not until after I have had my revenge on the filth who has plagued us so."

The Battle Maiden looked up, grief and rage warring in her eyes. "I will take my vengeance upon the creature whose blade ended my loyal friend's life. None other."

"Then gather your things," Kijuro instructed. "We must be hasty. Akemi," he fixed the phantom hunter with a knowing stare, "find the trail."

"Of course, Kijuro-sama," she replied. "And… thank you."

"Find the man who did this," he said thickly, "and your debt will be paid in full."

* * * *

Shoin was awakened suddenly, although he did not know why. He scanned the campsite carefully and without moving. The group had made excellent time and he was anticipating meeting Kijuro's group by the time of evening meal the following day. But right now, something was amiss.

Lifting his head slightly, Shoin noticed with a cold dread that the campsite was preternaturally dark. Very slowly, he reached for his blade, feeling comforted by the feel of the cold steel in his hand. Cautiously, he began to rise from his bedroll.

There was a flash of motion in the corner of his eye. He spun instinctively, bringing his blade up to a guarded position. It was not fast enough. Something struck him across the face sharply, rocking his head backward and sending him sprawling to the ground. He could taste the blood in his mouth as he watched a patch of the night move through the campsite, bearing down on him.

"Rezan! Chieh!" he shouted with all the energy he could muster as he kicked backwards in a vain effort to get to his feet. "It is here! It has come for Rezan!"

The shadows descended on Shoin like those that swallowed a candle once its flame was finally extinguished.

"No, son of Dosonu," a harsh voice cackled, "I have come for you."