A Hero's Death, Chapter 7
By Rich Wulf

All around him was darkness. Even the light of the campfire, mere feet away moments before, was invisible now. Fortunately, Miya Shoin could still see a bit. The radiance of his own skin illuminated the space around him for a few feet. Unfortunately, he had lost his wakizashi when the assassin attacked. Now he was alone and unarmed. The shadows seemed to deepen, closing in on the small circle of light that yet surrounded him.

"Kill me if you will, but you will accomplish nothing," Shoin shouted. "I already sent a messenger to Otosan Uchi. Hantei Naseru will soon know that the minions of the Lying Darkness run rampant once more."

"Such serves my purposes," snarled an angry voice, seeming to echo from all directions at once. "But know now, I am no Goju."

Shoin frowned. "You're not?" he asked. "The wounds you left, the clues we've been following… they pointed to a soul taken by Nothing, something less than human…"

"As I wished you to think!" the assassin retorted. "No matter. The time to hide in shadows will soon be over."

"But there are sixty heroes of Rokugan," Shoin replied, still glancing about for any sign of his weapon. "You have killed only four. You failed to kill Kaneko, and Rezan is obviously not here."

"I am not here for Rezan, and Kaneko was nothing more than a distraction," the assassin chuckled. "Both of them have soiled their legends with reality. Neither death will serve my purpose. Not as yours will, son of Dosonu."

"Fortunes, I was not a Hero of Rokugan," Shoin said. "I was only a child when the Steel Chrysanthemum made his peace with Toturi. The Shadow must have addled your brain."

"I am not a minion of the Shadow, herald!" the voice shouted. "This has nothing to do with the Heroes of Rokugan, and everything to do with immortality."

"Immortality?" Shoin replied. "How will killing me make you immortal?"

"Is not killing an end in and of itself?" the assassin asked. The voice sounded closer now. "You are the Herald's heir. You inherited his name. You inherited the favor of Toturi's family. You even inherited the accursed light of Yomi. I would quench that light; let it shine upon the Empire no more, and let the Empire know who quenched it. All of the greatest legends in the Empire gained their fame on a mound of the dead. All of your Heroes are nothing more than glorified killers. Kill them all, and I will be the greatest of them all. Is it not so? Toturi slew two Emperors, and he was acclaimed as the greatest ruler since Hantei."

"Kill me if you must," Shoin said. "Others will stop you."

"Let them try," the assassin said. "What can they do to me? I survived hell itself." The shadows seemed to gather, as if preparing to attack.

"Was it you who murdered the Emperor Toturi?" Shoin asked.

There was a long pause. "Toturi?" the assassin seemed confused. "No, not Toturi…" A dark figure congealed from the shadows. His face was not the featureless eggshell spoken of in the legends of the War Against the Shadow, but an ancient face lined with pain and anger. With a flick of one wrist, a jagged knife appeared in his hand. "You are stalling, shisha," he said. "Your friends will not save you. They left together some time ago. Apparently they are more interested in one another's embrace than their service to you..."

Shoin seemed shocked. The assassin smiled and buried his weapon in Shoin's chest. With a quick twist, the herald's entrails spilled out upon the earth. With a strangled cry of pain, Miya Shoin crumpled to the ground and lay still.

The assassin crouched, looked at the dead body sadly for a long moment, then vanished into the shadows.

o

Rezan stepped into the clearing, his face grim. Mist covered the earth as the sun rose over the eastern mountains, casting a strangely peaceful light over the grisly scene. He scratched the stubble on his chin with one hand, his face strangely expressionless as he looked at Shoin's fallen body. Kijuro and Moshi Kakau stood just behind him, both looking angry and confused.

"Stay back," Rezan called to the others following him. "You may not want to see this."

"Why not?" Miya Shoin asked, stepping into the campsite with his yumi in hand. "It isn't every day a man gets a chance to see his own corpse." The herald walked over to stand opposite Rezan. He looked down at the body with a shocked expression. "That's… extraordinary," Shoin said, nodding at the spectacle.

"One of my finest works," Agasha Chieh replied, joining them.

"Shoin!" Kakau exclaimed. "You're alive!"

Rezan knelt by Shoin's 'corpse.' Reaching down with one hand, he grasped a handful of spilled entrails, and picked up a handful of straw. The image of Shoin's body wavered and vanished, replaced by a straw figure dressed in the herald's spare kimono.

"All shisha wear a horo, a cloak of thick straw, to protect their back in their travels," Shoin said wryly. "Looks like mine served its purpose better than most."

"Your magic is truly extraordinary, Chieh-san," Akemi said, sincerely impressed. "I have never seen its like."

Chieh only shrugged. "Beseeching an air kami to wrap a straw target in Shoin's likeness was a simple enough task," she said. "Entreating a fire kami to bring it life was a bit trickier. I had to burn my best silken obi to repay that favor. Lord Naseru shall reimburse me for that expense, I assure you."

Shoin laughed. "I thought you were ascetic, Chieh-san."

"I thought you were dead," she replied, arching an eyebrow.

"Fair enough," Shoin agreed. "I certainly won't begrudge your eccentricities so soon after you saved my life."

Toritaka Akemi and Utaku Yu-Pan both burst into the campsite, weapons drawn. Both women looked exhausted and travel worn. "What's going on here?" Yu-Pan demanded, looking down at the straw figure in Shoin's clothing.

"You just missed the resurrection, ladies," Kijuro answered with a loud laugh. "You might have told Kijuro what you were up to. We would not have exhausted ourselves riding back to save you from the ambush had we known you saw it coming."

"I did not tell you of my plan sooner because I did not have a plan," Chieh said. "The chain of coincidences did not become clear in my mind until well after your group left."

"Ah, well, all seems well in hand," said Kijuro, patting his broad belly. "I am glad to see that you are all still alive."

"How did you know we would be ambushed, Kijuro?" Shoin asked.

"Someone killed our horses in an attempt to delay our arrival," Kakau said. "We came as quickly as we could."

"Really," Chieh said with a prim frown. "Sabotage."

"I would term it 'murder,' but yes," Yu-Pan said, sheathing her katana. "The assassin was here?"

Shoin quickly explained the trap that Chieh had set, and the assassin's abrupt arrival and departure. Kijuro folded his arms and began to pace the camp at the news. Akemi merely squatted on the ground, massaging her temples with two fingers.

"Did you at least get a proper look at his face?" Akemi asked.

"I did," Shoin said, "but I did not recognize him."

"That is a shame," Kakau said morosely.

"I recognized him," Rezan said quietly, and all turned to look at the poet. "I had not seen him in many years, but I recognized him. You may not believe what I am about to say, but the assassin was none other than-"

"Gusai," Chieh finished.

"Er… yes," the poet said.

"Impossible!" Yu-Pan retorted. "Kakau saw him die!"

Moshi Kakau said nothing.

"Is it not obvious?" Chieh replied. "The corpse must have been a fake.

"The same sort of magic we saw here tonight?" Kijuro asked.

"Not likely," Chieh said, her tone slightly offended. "I think the explanation is much simpler than that.

Kijuro frowned slowly, turned, and seized Moshi Kakau by the throat. Lifting the little man into the air, he slammed him heavily into a nearby tree. Drawing his gaijin sword, he pressed the point to Kakau's abdomen. The rings mounted along the blunt edge chimed softly.

"What are you doing, Kijuro?" Shoin demanded.

"Saving the Mantis' life," he snarled. "If he doesn't drop his weapons before Yu-Pan puts together the facts, she will be far less merciful, I guarantee."

Kakau quickly removed the kama from his obi, throwing them to the ground. Kijuro kicked the weapons away and set him on his feet, but kept the blade trained on the little man.

"What are you talking about, Kijuro?" Yu-Pan demanded.

"Moshi Kakau is a traitor," Chieh said.

Shoin frowned. "That is a serious charge, Chieh," Shoin replied. "What is your proof?"

"First, we turn to the very beginning," Chieh said. "Gusai's murder was witnessed. All the others - even Kaneko's averted assassination and Shoin's illusory one - occurred when no witnesses were about. Why would someone as vicious as Gusai allow someone as inconsequential as Kakau to witness such an act, and let him live?" Chieh's icy gaze rested upon the Mantis. Kakau looked away.

"To cover his own demise so that he could act freely," Kijuro said, "or perhaps even to create a false witness to divert future investigations."

"Your brutish demeanor conceals a keen analytical mind, Ox," Chieh said. "I may have underestimated you."

"It happens." Kijuro shrugged.

"But this group was formed because Kakau witnessed Gusai's murder. Who would falsify a crime merely to create a spy to monitor the group created to solve the crime? Who would devise a plan so complex?"

"Someone with centuries to plan," Rezan said, sitting on a rock. The famous poet's eyes were glazed, distant. "You'd be amazed what you'll think about, with that sort of time on your hands." Kakau still said nothing.

"Continuing," Chieh went on, "consider Kijuro's report of Yasuki Kaneko's averted assassination. Kakau did nothing during the encounter, citing that the enemy had somehow sapped his will to fight. Kijuro, Yu-Pan, and Akemi felt no such effects."

"That could have been fear," Yu-Pan said. "Shameful, perhaps, but not traitorous."

"Perhaps," Chieh nodded again. "At the time, it seemed a reasonable excuse. But the chain of coincidences does not end there. The most valuable clues stem from the conversation Shoin had with Gusai when he attacked. I must commend you, by the way, Shoin-sama. Accusing Gusai of being another's pawn struck him at the heart of his arrogance. Perhaps any other tactic would have just led to him killing your duplicate without such a dialogue, and robbed us of the chance to learn as much as we did."

"Gusai said that we had the favor of Toturi's family," Shoin said. " Only a member of our own group could tell him that we worked for the Anvil, unless the Anvil or his yojimbo told Gusai."

"We shall assume, for the moment, that the most capable courtier in the Empire can keep his own secrets," Chieh said. "Gusai also knew that Rezan and I are involved with one another, a fact that Kakau discovered at Kyuden Doji."

"Now I'm impressed," Kijuro said, nodding respectfully at Rezan. The poet bowed slightly.

"Please, everyone, can we all stay focused?" Shoin said sharply.

"Thank you, Shoin-sama," Chieh said, shooting the Ox a glare. "I suspect another clue shall fall into place in a moment. Akemi, Kijuro, were either of you present when the Battle Maiden's horse died?"

"No," Akemi said. "We were otherwise occupied."

"And what of Kakau?" she asked.

"I was teaching the Mantis to hunt," Yu-Pan said.

"Were you with him when your steed died?" the shugenja asked.

"No, I was scouting ahead," she replied.

"So with the assassin's target alone and relatively unprotected, the assassin's accomplice manages to arrange matters so that he can disable the rest of the party's steeds, delaying any possibility of your arriving in time to stop Gusai. Kakau, I see your kama on the ground. Where is your knife?"

Kakau said nothing. He continued to stare at the ground.

"It is a little known fact that the Battle Maidens share an almost mystical link with their chosen steed," Chieh continued, "when one is harmed, the other can sense it. With Yu-Pan nearby, surely you had little time to cleanse your blade of the horse's blood before she arrived. Easier, I think, to just throw it away, and blame the attack on an assassin that can melt from the shadows."

"That seems a bit of a stretch to me, Chieh," Shoin said. "We don't know the full extent of Gusai's abilities. He seems to be able to draw upon the power of Nothing, as you said. Could that not allow him to kill the horse and still arrive here in time to-"

"No," Kakau said in a firm voice. He looked up, meeting the herald's eyes. "No more lies. I will endure it no longer. Chieh is right. I slew the horses. I have been working for Gusai all this time, giving him information on the makeup of our group." The Mantis paused. "I am a traitor."

All were quiet for a long moment. "Why?" Yu-Pan finally asked. There was no anger in her voice, only a strange, sad, resignation.

"I serve Gusai," he said. "It is as simple as that."

"You serve a killer, Moshi Kakau," Shoin said. "How can you have any pride in that?"

"Tell me this," Kakau asked, looking at Shoin. "If your father were to ride through Oblivion's Gate this very day and ask you to join him on a quest to take back rulership of the Miya, would you do it?"

"My father would not ask me to do such a thing," Shoin replied.

"Then you are fortunate," the Mantis said. "Dosonu did not return to find his family spitting upon his name."

"What are you talking about?" Shoin asked.

"You know already how the Gusai family name was granted," Kakau said, "but do you know what happened to it? Three generations after Gusai died, an ambitious Mantis named Rioshida attempted to win Great Clan status by kidnapping the Emperor's son. The Emperor at the time was weak, spineless. He would have capitulated to Rioshida's demands. But Rioshida's own clan turned against him, executing the ruling members of the Gusai family and returning the Emperor's son. The Gusai name was revoked and forever stained with dishonor. Gusai walked through Oblivion's Gate expecting to resume leadership of his clan. Instead, he found that his own clan no longer wished to remember him. Yoritomo Aramasu ordered Gusai to leave the Mantis Isles, assigning him little more than a token honor guard to protect him."

"And you were a part of that honor guard," Kijuro said.

"My family was, yes," Kakau said. "I was born in Gusai's service."

"And what happened to the rest of your family?" Rezan asked.

"There were only a handful of us," Kakau said. "Over the years, most abandoned him. Perhaps they saw life as a ronin more attractive than serving a madman. I am the only one who still serves him."

"You should have become a ronin," Rezan said. "It's much better than being executed."

"What is Gusai's plan?" Shoin asked. "What would turn a former servant of Toturi into a killer?"

Kakau laughed. "He was always a killer," the Mantis said. "Gusai attacked Hantei's armies only because they were made up of heroes and legends. He had hoped for a chance to kill the Steel Chrysanthemum. He has an… obsession with killing the legendary."

"He said that all of the greatest legends in the Empire gained their fame on a mound of the dead," Shoin replied.

Kakau nodded. "And if he can kill them, he will be remembered as the greatest of them all. Gusai spent centuries in the Realm of Slaughter. Endless blood, death, and murder, has twisted his perception of the world. He believes that if he had killed the Hantei in his past life, he would be remembered as an Emperor instead of a failure. He had hoped to correct that mistake by killing Hantei XVI. He failed, ultimately. He was grouped with other heroic spirits, given a small commendation, and forgotten."

"So why did he want to kill me?" Shoin asked.

"I do not know," Kakau shook his head.

"Then you're no longer useful," Yu-Pan said, drawing her sword and advancing toward him.

"Yu-Pan," Shoin said quickly, "No!"

Yu-Pan looked calmly at the herald. "He has confessed to his crime, in the presence of a magistrate. He has conspired with an assassin to bring about the death of samurai. We are now obliged to carry out the sentence."

"There are too many questions," Akemi said. "We still do not know how Gusai gained control over the power of Nothing, or what his next target will be."

"We have too many questions, Yu-Pan," Shoin said. "I am sorry, but justice will have to wait. We will take him with us."

Yu-Pan shrugged, sheathed her sword, and walked away. Shoin found her sudden lack of emotion even more disturbing than her usual rage.

"Where will we go next, Shoin-sama?" Chieh asked.

Shoin looked at her. "I'm disappointed, Chieh. Have we exhausted your prescient abilities?"

"Now that we've finished with the logical deductions, we've been reduced to mere guesswork," she replied. "I fear that is not an area in which I excel."

"Gusai wants to kill a legend," Kijuro said. "As I doubt he realizes the true value of Kijuro - for then he would obviously be after me - my guess is that perhaps his aim was to kill Toturi. He failed. The Horde beat him to it."

"No," Kakau said. "Gusai respected Toturi. Toturi granted the Mantis Great Clan status. He would never harm the Splendid Emperor."

"No?" Shoin said, suddenly coming to a realization. "Then what about his children?"

"I told you already, Gusai bore no malice to the Toturi family," Kakau said. "He reserved his hatred for the Hantei."

"Like Naseru?" Shoin asked, "the student of the man who escaped him?"

Kakau blinked. "I never considered..."

"Kijuro," Shoin said quickly. "Take my horse. How quickly can you return to Shiro Morito and obtain fresh steeds for all of us?"

"I am already there, Shoin-sama," Kijuro said. "Could you watch the driftwood?" He nodded at the Mantis. Shoin nodded, drawing his bow, knocking an arrow, and aiming at Kakau. The Mantis only stood where he was, not attempting to resist or escape. Kijuro charged off as if Fu Leng were at his heels.

"We ride for Otosan Uchi?" Akemi asked.

Shoin nodded. "Take Yu-Pan and Rezan. Ready the rest of the horses."

"Is this necessary, Shoin-sama?" Chieh asked. "Lord Naseru has averted assassination attempts before. Presumably he will be well protected against this one."

"Hantei Naseru gave us this mission," Shoin said. "Would you risk failing when you knew you could do otherwise?"

"Of course not," she said, "but I am pleased that you would not, either."

"I'm curious, Chieh," Shoin said, looking sidelong at the Phoenix. "How did you know Gusai would come for me? That is the only part that you have not explained."

"That much was obvious from the very beginning," Chieh said. "If Naseru had truly wished us to investigate these murders, he could have asked any one of a hundred more experienced magistrates anywhere in the Empire. Instead, he chose you, an obvious half-spirit descendant of a very famous and prominent spirit, to find an assassin who murders spirits."

Shoin digested that for a moment. "I was bait?" he asked.

Chieh smirked slightly. "I suppose next you shall ask me how long I have known that."

"Not at all," Shoin said. "A wise woman once told me that the world is a boring place without mystery."

To be Concluded

o

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.

Gusai - Founder of the first official family of the Mantis Clan, whose name was later revoked after a failed attack on the Emperor. He was the first victim of the assassin who hunts the Heroes of Rokugan.

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.

Hantei Naseru - One of the Four Winds, heirs to Toturi I. Also called the Anvil, he is the most cunning and politically-minded of the Four Winds. It was he who commissioned Miya Shoin's group to investigate the assassinations.

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.

Lying Darkness - A strange entity that embodied the unmaking of all that exists. The Lying Darkness was destroyed thirty years ago after the machinations of its minions caused Oblivion's Gate to open. Though the Darkness itself is gone, it is believed that many of its former minions can still control the strange, shadow-based abilities it once granted them.

Miya Dosonu - The father of Miya Shoin, a returned spirit who gave his life heroically during the War of Spirits. In his first lifetime, he was a contemporary of Rezan.

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.

Nothing - The power once controlled by the Lying Darkness; it represents an absence of all elements in their natural balance. The assassin hunted by Shoin and the others seems to display mastery of this power.

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 under the protection of Miya Shoin's party, though he seems to have joined them in their investigations of his own free will.

Shadow - Another name for the Lying Darkness.

Toritaka Akemi - A Scorpion actress assigned to impersonate a Crab Clan phantom-hunter. She has been assigned to Miya Shoin's party of magistrates; thus far only Kijuro knows her true allegiance.

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.

Yasuki Kaneko - Another member of the Heroes of Rokugan, who came to live among the Ox Clan to avoid uncomfortable questions about her lineage. Shoin's group recently averted an attempt on her life.