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Blood Brothers, Part 1
By Rich Wulf

The Year 1165 by the Isawa Calendar
Sixth Year in the Reign of the Righteous Emperor, Toturi III

Kuma slumped weakly against the wall, breath coming in gasps. His hand clapsed feebly at his side, reaching for a katana that was not there. His eyes were wide and wild, searching for any threat like a wild beast. His gaze flicked up to fix on the man standing before him. The man smoothed his kimono over his round belly with one hand and smiled down at Kuma patiently.

"It is all right, Kaiu-san," the man said. "Be at rest. You are safe now."

"Seppun Saito?" Kuma asked, eyes clearing slightly as he recognized the man before him. "Where are the others, Saito-san? What has become of them? Where is Genjiko? Where is Sui?"

The Seppun frowned for a moment, glancing to one side. "Do not worry about them right now, Kuma," he said gently. "Think of yourself. You have been through a great ordeal. You must regain your strength."

The young Crab hunched forward into a kneeling position and took a deep breath. He looked down at himself, as if realizing for the fist time that his once fine armor was now battle scarred and drenched with blood. "Something terrible has happened, Saito," he said in a low voice.

"I think that much is obvious," the Seppun said with a frown. "I was there for part of it, but not all. Tell me what you remember."

Kuma's eyes fixed on the floor as his brow furrowed in thought. After a long moment, a low whimper escaped his lips. A tear ran down one cheek, a tear he quickly wiped away. "I failed," he whispered. "I failed them."

"Tell me about it," the Seppun replied. "Perhaps we can still put things right."

Kuma looked up with a bleak expression. "I do not know where to begin," he said.

"Begin with the beginning," the Seppun replied. "Isn't that the easiest way?"

"The beginning," Kuma replied with a glazed expression. "It began with the bandits&"

* * * * *

"To the right!" Kuma shouted, pointing his katana toward the bandit gang's right flank.

Iuchi Katamari glanced back with an annoyed expression and continued galloping to the right as he had been. He drew his nage-yari with a smooth movement as his horse leapt toward the bandits, spear slicing through the nearest man's throat without slowing a bit. He leapt from the horse, purple robes billowing on the wind as he landed nimbly and forced his spear through the heart of the next enemy.

Kuma was only a step behind, swinging from saddle with his katana gripped tight in both hands. He drove his sword in a heavy chopping movement, the finest Kaiu steel slicing through the nearest horse, saddle and rider. Another bandit galloped toward Kuma, lowering his naginata toward the Kaiu's chest with a defiant cry. Kuma looked back with a sneer and held his blade ready. A thunderous crack echoed as a fist of pure water tore up from the earth, throwing the horse and rider into the air with a shriek. Kuma glanced back at Katamari. The Iuchi held a small amulet in his free hand. The glow of magic sparkled from his fingers and eyes.

"I was fine," Kuma said in a low voice.

"Apparently," Katamari answered dryly.

"Thank you," Kuma said, more humbly.

Katamari eyed Kuma quietly for a moment then nodded. "We should rendezvous with your wife. She has only that useless Seppun to protect her."

Kuma chuckled. "Saito is more competent than you give him credit, and Sui is more capable than both of us together," Kuma replied. "If she needs our help then we are all doomed."

Katamari only shrugged, eyes narrowing as he scanned the deep woods for more bandits. Crab and Unicorn stood back to back for a long moment, both listening for any sign of the enemy.

A shrill scream resounded through the woods. Kuma looked that way with a start, Katamari's gaze was more cool and focused.

"Sui?" Kuma asked, worried.

"Sui would not scream," Katamari answered. "But whoever that may be, they need our help."

The two magistrates climbed back into their saddles and galloped into the woods, rushing headlong toward the sounds of screaming. Katamari drew another amulet from behind his obi as they went, preparing for another spell. Kuma sheathed his katana and drew the bow from his saddle, notching one arrow as he steered his horse with his knees. They broke into a clearing to find a half dozen bandits standing around a woman in tattered orange robes, stained with blood.

"Surrender in the name of the Emerald Champion!" Katamari roared.

He clutched his amulet and pointed his fist toward the group. The nearest two bandits fell to their knees choking as water kami filled their lungs. Kuma released his arrow, taking down a third with a single shot. He dropped the bow and slid from his saddle, Kaiu blade appearing in his hand. A bandit ran screaming at him with his sword held high. Kuma sneered and struck out at the blade, shearing the pitiful weapon in two and slicing down its wielder as well. Katamari charged forward without dismounting, his massive Unicorn steed crushing another bandit with ease. The last man looked up at the two magistrates in terror and ducked behind the woman, holding his sword over her throat. Katamari scowled down from his saddle and Kuma hesitated, hands tightening on his sword.

The captive woman only looked at them with a steady, fearless gaze. The bandit's expression of fear and desperation slowly changed to one of confusion and pain. He fell backward, a stain of blood spreading across his abdomen. The woman stood, wiped her small knife on a scrap of silk, and returned it to her obi. She looked up at the two men with a relieved smile.

"My thanks, magistrates," she said. "There were too many for me alone."

"We do only our duty," Kuma replied, bowing from the waist. He flicked his blade clean of blood and returned it to its saya.

"What are you doing so deep in these woods alone?" Katamari asked, looking down at the woman warily.

"Katamari, do not be rude," Kuma said. "This woman is wounded. Call upon the spirits and heal her."

"I need no healing," the woman replied, rising to her feet. "This blood is not my own. These were not the first bandits I have encountered in these woods."

Katamari arched an appraising, respectful eyebrow. "You are samurai?" he asked.

The woman said nothing, only held out her hands. An open eye was tattooed on each palm.

"Inquisitor," Kuma said, slightly awed.

She smiled faintly. "I am called Asako Genjiko," she said, bowing to the two men. "From your battle cry can I assume that you are Emerald Magistrates?"

"Assigned to the village of Kakita Bogu," Katamari said with barely concealed distaste. "We have hunted this bandit gang for months."

"Then I hope you have brought help," Genjiko replied in a serious tone. "You face more than mere bandits."

"What do you mean?" Kuma asked urgently.

"These bandits are the part of a larger band, agents of a tsukai that I tracked here from Phoenix lands. My two yojimbo already fell when we encountered them unprepared. They held me prisoner for three days, perhaps hoping to ransom me to the Asako. I was only able to escape just today."

"Where are the rest?" Katamari asked urgently.

"In some caves in a canyon just south of here," she began.

"I know those caves," Katamari growled. "That is the way Sui went." He kicked his horse into motion and vanished through the trees.

Kuma looked after Katamari with an irritated frown then climbed onto his own steed. He extended one hand to Genjiko. "You can share my saddle," he said. "Your magic will help us against what we might face."

Genjiko wordlessly accepted Kuma's hand, settling lightly into the saddle behind him. The Crab galloped forth, ducking through the thick forest as quickly as he was able.

"You are a skilled rider," she commented.

"I learned from my stepmother," he replied, eyes fixed on the uneven path ahead. "Katamari's mother?" Genjiko replied.

Kuma chuckled. "Few guess that we are brothers so quickly," he said.

"You fight like brothers," she said, "with each other and with the enemy."

Kuma laughed again. "I think some days that Yakamo sent him to test my patience."

"And who is Sui?" she asked.

"My wife, and our fellow magistrate," Kuma said.

"You send your wife to fight bandits alone?" Genjiko asked.

"My wife was trained in the Kitsu Tombs," Kuma replied. "She can protect herself, and she has Seppun Saito to defend her."

"A Seppun magistrate?" Genjiko asked. "What is a Seppun doing in Kakita Bogu?"

"Strange," Kuma replied. "Saito often asks me the same question."

* * * * *

By the time Kuma caught up to Katamari's swifter steed the battle had already begun. Katamari moved on the edge of the wind, nage-yari spinning in one hand as he leapt from one bandit to the next. Seppun Saito followed as best he could, the overweight Seppun gasping uncomfortably as he flailed at the enemy with his blade.

In the center of the battlefield, like an unmovable stone amid the surging ocean, stood Sui. Kuma was taken once more by how beautiful his wife was when she worked her magic. She held her hands out to her side, swirling with phantom mist. Her eyes glowed golden, filled with the power of her ancestors. Any bandit who approached too closely fell back screaming as she focused her magic upon him, crushing each man's soul beneath the weight of his own dishonor.

As he pulled his horse to a halt, Kuma realized that Genjiko was no longer in the saddle. He felt a wave of heat rush overhead, and looked up to see Genjiko floating on wings of fire. The wings burned all that they touched as she soared over the bandits, washing the long feathers over each man and leaving charred husks in her wake.

"Surrender!" she roared in an unearthly voice. "Submit to the Emperor's Justice!"

The bandits began to scatter in the face of the magistrates, dropping their weapons and heading for the safety of the forest. One man simply dropped his spear, held out his hands, and pled for mercy. Genjiko landed before him, her flaming aura fading, and seized his throat in one hand.

"Where is he?" she demanded. "Where is your master?"

The man only looked at her and choked helplessly, eyes bugging in terror.

"Where is the one you serve?" she demanded. She held her other hand open, palm out. The open eye began to burn with a pale white light. The bandit whimpered as a thin stream of blood trickled from the corner of one eye.

"Your soul flies free this day one way or another," Genjiko hissed. "It falls to you to choose how much pain accompanies it. Tell me what I want to know."

Katamari reined his horse beside Genjiko, looking down at the Inquisitor with a bland expression. Saito looked about in confusion, obviously uncomfortable with the torture she was inflicting upon the man. Kuma stepped forward and began to say something, but fell silent at a single, soft word.

"Stop," Sui said. She moved behind the bandit and looked at Genjiko, her golden eyes filled with sorrow and concern.

Genjiko sneered at Sui. "He defies the Emperor's law," she said. "It is my right to mete out justice."

"Justice without compassion is meaningless," Sui replied. She rested one hand upon the bandit's shoulder and spoke a single word of magic. The man's eyes rolled back in his head and he gasped, body falling limp in Genjiko's grip.

Genjiko blinked in surprise. "You killed him," she whispered. "We have learned nothing!"

Sui only smiled, her eyes fixed on something only she could see. "His spirit speaks to me now," she replied. "He repents his crimes, as so many do when faced with eternity. He promises to tell me what we wish to know, so long as I pray for his soul."

"I see," Genjiko replied, folding her arms in her sleeves. "Then ask him what became of the one who led this band." "He has come and gone," Sui replied in a distant voice.

"He has found and delivered the fourth mask to his master."

"That cannot be," Genjiko said, her voice quavering. "By all the Fortunes tell me that the spirit did not say those words."

The glow in Sui's eyes faded, revealing the strange orange eyes of a Kitsu. Her shoulders slumped and she frowned at Genjiko sadly. "I am sorry, but the spirits do not lie to me," she said. "What has been spoken is the truth, as far as he knew."

"Then we have little time," Genjiko whispered. "We must act swiftly or the Empire will drown in an ocean of blood."

Saito chuckled nervously. "Why are you Phoenix always so melodramatic?" he asked.

"Why are you Seppun always such idiots?" Genjiko said, fixing him with a withering gaze.

Saito scowled, hand moving reflexively to his sword. Something in Genjiko's gaze made him move his hand away.

"Saito, Genjiko, please," Kuma said, moving between the two men. "Fighting with one another serves no purpose." He turned to the Inquisitor. "Genjiko, please explain. What is going on here? You said that these bandits worked for a maho tsukai."

"Not just a tsukai, a Bloodspeaker," she replied in a bleak voice. "In the service of Mohai."

The name drew silence in its wake for many long seconds. It was Katamari who spoke first, leaning forward in his saddle as he tugged his beard in thoughts. "Mohai," he repeated. "The killer who ravaged the Empire during the War Against the Darkness?"

"That was nothing," Genjiko answered. "Four masks seal the Tomb of Iuchiban and now Mohai possesses them all. No doubt he moves now to release the Heartless One upon the Empire for a third time."

"Then we must stop him," Katamari replied simply.

"Stop him?" Genjiko asked, looking at Katamari incredulously. "This is Mohai. The man ravages armies with the wave of his hand."

"Then let your army begin with us," Kuma replied.

* * * * *

"We were foolish," Kuma whispered, huddling in the corner of the room. "We doomed ourselves that day, Saito."

The Seppun looked down at Kuma with a calm, patient expression. "I am not so sure, Saito said. All things considered things did not go so badly. Calm yourself. Collect yourself. Those were dark days, to be sure, but once you collect yourself I think the pain will not be so great."

"Perhaps&" Kuma said, still looking straight ahead with a dazed expression. "Perhaps I just need to remember."

"Then tell me more, Kuma-san," the Seppun said. "Tell me how we found the Tomb of Iuchiban&"

To be Continued&




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Togashi will return!