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Blood Brothers, Part 3
By Rich Wulf

Kaiu Kuma slumped on the floor in the corner of the darkened chamber. Across the room, the Seppun knelt calmly at a low table, watching him with a kindly, concerned expression. An elaborate tea set was now laid out before him. The Seppun patiently, carefully arranged the pot and cups, making certain that all was placed in the most harmonious arrangement. It seemed as if Kuma could see none of this, hugging his arms to his chest and shivering faintly as he stared into space.

"Kuma-sama, come sit with me," the Seppun said. "Have some tea."

"I am not thirsty, Saito," Kuma said in a numb voice.

The Seppun chuckled. "The tea ceremony has nothing to do with thirst, Kuma. You know that. The elegance of this ritual brings focus and direction to the spirit. These are things that I think you sorely need right now."

"I don't& need& tea," Kuma said, his voice nearly a snarl. "I need to remember what has become of the others. Genjiko, Katamari, Sui."

The Seppun looked up from his work, his expression one of surprise and mild distaste. He sighed and set the delicate cup he had been considering upon the low table. "Why have you become angry with me?" he asked. "I have done nothing since your recovery save try to aid you."

"Because I think you know something that you have not told me yet," Kuma said. "Why are my memories so torn and fragmented, but you seem to remember everything?"

"That is the nature of magic used without caution," the Seppun replied. "It was a necessity at the time, but now you pay the price. Do you not remember how you helped Asako Genjiko find Iuchiban's Tomb?"

Kuma's tormented eyes filled with slow understanding, memory dawning slowly and with great labor. "It was Sui&" he said. "She used her magic, helped me draw upon my ancestors for guidance."

"And not just any ancestor," the Seppun said. "You are the descendant of Kaiu Gineza, the legendary engineer who constructed Iuchiban's Tomb. The location was well hidden, forgotten by all save a few - but Gineza remembered, even beyond the veil of death. When Sui called out to your ancestor's spirit, told him how serious the threat to the Empire was, Gineza suffused your being, joined his memories with yours."

"Yes," Kuma said, nodding slowly. "I remember now. For a time, the old master's memories were mine."

"Quite fortunate, don't you think, that of all the magistrates Genjiko might have randomly discovered in the wilderness, she would find the one that was related to Kaiu Gineza," the Seppun said, sipping delicately at his tea. "The one with the Kitsu wife who could speak to and summon ancestors."

Kuma looked at the Seppun in confusion.

The Seppun smiled.

"I am just making some observations for my own amusement," the Seppun said. "Destiny can be a strange thing, no?"

"I suppose so," Kuma replied. "Gineza is gone now. He has abandoned me, and taken his memories with him& I do not know why."

"The spirits of the dead often behave strangely when drawn to the mortal realm," the Seppun said, watching Kuma intently. "They often do not know why they do what they do, and if misguided can often act rashly. This is why it is important that we have shugenja like your wife, Sui. They guide the ancestors during their time in this world, help preserve their honor and dignity."

"Things are becoming clearer now," Kuma said. "I remember entering the Tomb."

"Excellent," the Seppun replied. "Then let us continue to walk this path together.

* * * * *

Kaiu Kuma looked up at the mountainside, his eyes illuminated by his wife's magic. He could see two images before him, his ancestor's memory of the past superimposed by the reality of the present.

In the past, he could see four mighty stone doors set into the mountain face, constructed of heavy stone and cleverly designed so that the weight of each leaned upon another, leaning down into the heart of the mountain. Once closed, the doors would not be opened without powerful magic. In the face of each door was a large, oval depression. Into each of these could be placed a key - a mask of Phoenix make that bore powerful magic. While these four keys were in place, the doors of the Tomb would open.

In the present, he could see the four doors, now open wide. The earth all about the opening was soaked with blood, littered with corpses. Each of the bodies wore the brilliant green armor of an Emerald Magistrate. A few, the most trusted servants of the Emperor, had been chosen to spend their lives here in secret, guarding the Tomb of Iuchiban from the curious, malicious, and insane.

They had been no match for Mohai.

Kuma looked down at the body of a fallen samurai and frowned. She looked to be no older than eighteen, her face now frozen in an expression of perpetual terror. Mohai's magic had torn her apart from the inside before she had even drawn her sword. "Foolish," he whispered. "All so foolish&"

Katamari stood near the tomb, spear in hand as he cautiously approached the entrance. He peered over his shoulder at his brother's words. "Foolish?" he asked. "What is foolish, Kuma?"

"I warned them," Kuma replied. "I told them that it would be better if the tomb were sealed forever, if there were no doors at all, no way to gain access for anyone& They did not listen."

"Kuma-san?" Seppun Saito asked, looking at the Crab in confusion. The fat Seppun was even paler than usual. His right hand shaking as it rested on the hilt of his sword as it had since they first saw the bodies.

"Kuma's words are not his own," Sui said. She stood beside her husband, her golden eyes thoughtful and kind as she looked into his. "The shiryo fill you with their wisdom and guidance, my love. It is good that they have chosen to remain with us. Perhaps when the time comes, they will help us fight."

"We will need their aid, I think," Asako Genjiko replied. The Inquisitor knelt beside one of the bodies, studying its wounds. "Mohai is a powerful foe, and I have never seen magic such as this."

"Should we not just close the doors?" Saito asked. "Leave Mohai and his master in there to rot forever."

"No," Genjiko replied. "No more than putting the lid on a broken teapot will keep the tea from escaping. Iuchiban's power is held in check by careful enchantments. With Mohai moving freely within, he could break those enchantments, and then no prison in Rokugan could hold the Heartless One for even an instant longer."

"We should have sought out help," Saito said. "Reinforcements. Legionnaires. Jade Magistrates. Someone. Even with the ancestors beside us, there is only so much the five of us can do&"

"Not so," Sui said. "This is the one place in the Empire where we can face him."

Genjiko looked up at Sui curiously. "How so?" she asked.

Sui smiled. "Can you not feel the spirits? Can you not hear them whisper to you? The kami who dwell in this place are unlike any others. The spirits bound in this mountain were chosen for a reason. They are warriors. They hate the Heartless One and his corruption as much as anyone. We will face Mohai, Genjiko, and their power will fuel us. This place was created to hold Iuchiban forever, Inquisitor. The spirits will not let us fail."

Genjiko looked at Sui gravely. "I hope that you are right," was all that she said.

"We have spent enough time talking," Katamari said. "We must go forward. Kuma, do you remember anything about the inside?"

"Does a mother remember her child's face?" Kuma replied, stepping forward into the threshold of the Tomb of Iuchiban. "Follow me. Step where I step. When I say something, obey, and ask no questions."

"Are there traps inside?" Saito asked.

Kuma looked back with a faint grin. "Oh, yes," he replied, with a note of Kaiu Gineza's pride in his voice.

* * * * *

"So many traps," the Seppun said in wonder as he began to clean the tea set and put it away. "I was so afraid, but your wife's magic did its duty. Gineza guided you, and you guided us into the heart of the Bloodspeaker's tomb. The whirling blades, the crushing floors, the wards of Scorpion and Phoenix magic strengthened by Crab steel. Yet we came through unharmed."

"But so did Mohai," Kuma replied.

"Of course," the Seppun shrugged. "Where intellect and memory were our guides, he relied upon power, breaking the traps and unmaking the magical wards. By the time we had arrived, Mohai had already entered the Heart."

"The Heart&" Kuma whispered. "The place where Iuchiban was bound."

The Seppun looked at Kuma, his features grave. "After Iuchiban escaped the Tomb once, the Great Clans took greater pains to bind him properly. His immortal soul was bound to the stone of his own tomb, in much the same way that the Scorpion Clan imprisons betrayers in the trees of Traitor's Grove. The chambers known as the Heart became Iuchiban. Even Kaiu Gineza's memories served us little there, for that part of the Tomb could become what Iuchiban wished it to be upon a whim."

"I remember," Kuma said. "I remember that even Gineza's spirit felt fear when we saw that the heart had been pierced, but Sui was still resolute. She insisted that the kami would bind the Heartless One from harming us, and aid us against Mohai."

"And so we stepped into the Heart," the Seppun said. "I think that was the bravest thing I ever did& though in my case I supposed that is not saying much." He chuckled at himself. "But while Sui bound Iuchiban from harming us, she could not keep him from misleading us, and as soon as we stepped into the Heart we were separated."

"Yes," Kuma nodded. "I remember that now as well."

"I thought that I had stepped onto the fields outside Kyuden Seppun," Saito said, his eyes growing somewhat distant at the thought. "They were not the fields of today, but rather the fields of the past& The distant past, so long before I was reassigned to Kakita Bogu& They were the days when I was still young and happy& the days when she still loved me&"

"Who?" Kuma asked.

The Seppun glanced down in embarrassment and smoothed his kimono over his belly with one hand. "It is unimportant," he said with a nervous laugh. "Merely the painful memories of a life I had long forgotten. The past is built on failure, you know. We grow stronger from it, or we crumble."

"So they say," Kuma replied.

"At any rate, I know what I faced in the Heart," the Seppun said, looking intently at Kuma again. "I know each of us were separated, tempted by the Bloodspeaker. What did you see?"

"I was alone," Kuma began...

* * * * *

Kuma had stepped through the threshold of the Heart into darkness. This darkness was not merely deep shadow, but the utter absence of light, deep and absolute. He could feel its cold creep into his eyes, welling into his soul and drawing the heat from within him. He stepped forward clumsily, his feet drawing heavy thuds as they met the earth. His breath echoed heavily, quite a bit louder than it should be. A distant, mechanical buzz sounded in his ear, but each time he moved toward the sound it changed position.

"Where am I?" Kuma whispered after wandering for a time. "Where are the others?"

"You are alone," came the reply, a brittle whisper filled with pain.

"Who are you?" Kuma asked.

A mocking laughter was the reply. "Who do you think?"

"Iuchiban the Heartless," Kuma said.

"It is a pleasure to see another soul as lost and alone as myself, Kaiu-san," Iuchiban said. "We are much alike, except that I am strong and you are weak."

"I am not the one bound in stone, Bloodspeaker," Kuma replied.

"And yet you are a prisoner," Iuchiban replied. "A prisoner of lies and infidelity."

"Do not speak your lies to me," Kuma replied. "I have no reason to believe them."

"Then believe this&" Iuchiban said.

The darkness parted to reveal Sui, also walking through an inky black corridor. Her eyes were filled with the light of magic, but she could see nothing, her hands searching the area before her as she edged slowly forward. Her usually serene face was now masked in fear.

"Katamari?" she called out.

Shadow fell over her, concealing her once more.

The darkness parted again to reveal a rolling meadow, a place Kuma recognized as one near the village of Kakita Bogu. He sometimes came here with his wife, when the demands of his position allowed. She always enjoyed the serenity and beauty of this place. He could see her standing in the field, beside the stream she so adored, staring into its waters. Kuma imagined that she was whispering to the spirits, enjoying their company while she waited for her husband to join her. The gallop of hoof beats sounded in the distance and swiftly drew closer. Iuchi Katamari reared his horse to a halt and smiled down at Sui. Sui smiled in return, offered her hand to the Unicorn, and let him draw her into his saddle before him. With an elated cry, they rode away.

Shadow fell again.

"I have seen into your wife's heart, Kaiu Kuma, and she is not as true as she appears," the voice said. "It seems that your father's love for adultery has been inherited by your brother."

"An illusion," Kuma whispered.

"True," Iuchiban said, "but an illusion drawn from your wife's own memories. I am also a shugenja, Kuma-san, perhaps the strongest shugenja this Empire has ever known. Just as your wife has allowed you to recall your ancestor's memories, so can I see hers."

"No," Kuma said. "You seek to turn us against each other, weaken us, so that you may defeat us."

"Foolish Crab," Iuchiban laughed. "I do not believe I will escape today. Do you realize how many like yourself have entered this tomb in the last few centuries. Many more than you might think. At first, I believed that my salvation might come, that I might twist their minds and gain my freedom. Each time, only disappointment followed. Either meddling samurai prevented my escape or the fools who sought to free me were not up to the challenge. I do not believe I shall escape today, Kaiu. I wish only for you to walk away with pain that will haunt you forever& and truth cuts more deeply than lies. You are alone, Kaiu Kuma. Friends are merely enemies who have not yet found an opportunity to betray you."

"I do not believe you," Kuma answered, but the seeds of doubt had been planted.

"Kuma?" called out a voice - his brother's.

Kuma did not answer, still stunned by the vision Iuchiban had shown him.

"Kuma?" Katamari called out again.

Kuma pushed his doubt aside. "Over here!" he shouted.

And then the darkness was gone, and Katamari was there. A nimbus of crackling energy surrounded his short spear. He held it out like a torch, burning the darkness away. "Sui was right," Katamari said, eyes searching the darkness cautiously. "My magic is stronger here. The kami despise Iuchiban, and are eager to help us fight him."

"Careful," Kuma replied. "The Bloodspeaker is all around us. He can hear us even now."

"Not anymore," Katamari replied.

"What do you mean?" Kuma asked.

"I met another soul in these chambers, a prisoner of Iuchiban's," Katamari replied. "Though he cannot act against Iuchiban, he was kind enough to show me a spell he developed which allows him to hide his words and thoughts from Iuchiban when he wishes."

"Another person, trapped here?" Kuma asked. "For how long?"

"To call Adisabah a person' would be an exaggeration, I think," Katamari replied with a wry grin. "Let us just say that he is an ally, for now. He became too curious about the Tomb a few centuries ago, and was not able to escape. He said that others had intruded into the Tomb over the ages as well, and some, like him, became Iuchiban's prisoners. We must be cautious, Kuma. Even if the kami protect us from Iuchiban, they might not protect us from what else we find here."

Kuma nodded. "We must find the others, then," Kuma replied.

"I have already found the others," Katamari replied. "With their magic, Genjiko and Sui were easy enough to find and Saito has the luck of fools. You were the only difficult one to find, but then you were always difficult." Katamari chuckled.

Kuma did not laugh. "Lead me to them," Kuma said. "Let us stop Mohai and be done with this."

Katamari studied Kuma curiously for a moment, then nodded, leading his brother through the shadows. They finally rejoined Genjiko, Sui, and Saito. Sui looked afraid, as she had in Iuchiban's vision. Genjiko was calm and resolute. Saito looked strangely bored, perhaps too burdened by fear to show any emotions.

"Iuchiban's body lies this way," Sui said, pointing. "To free his spirit, Mohai must begin his work there."

"I will lead," Katamari said, stepping forward.

Kuma planted one hand firmly on his brother's shoulder, shook his head, and stepped forward. Katamari gave Kuma a long look, but said nothing, falling into line behind him. As they walked, the darkness rolled away, revealing an enormous stone chamber. The room was oddly unimpressive, a large stone chamber empty of all decoration. In the heart of the room lay a large iron casket, reinforced with bars of green jade. The metal was rusted and pitted in places, and the jade was streaked with black. Here and there, rivulets of black jade sludge oozed onto the floor.

"What is it?" Kuma asked, staring at the massive casket.

"Gaijin use these to contain their dead in foreign lands," Katamari replied. "Iuchiban's body will be within."

"Where is Mohai?" Sui asked, worried. "Should he not be here already?"

"Iuchiban," Asako Genjiko said in a firm voice. "I have come!"

"Genjiko?" Kuma asked, looking at the Inquisitor.

"You know who I am, Iuchiban," Genjiko continued, ignoring Kuma. "You know why I am here."
The chamber filled with hoarse, bitter laughter. "I warned you, Kuma," the voice of Iuchiban said. "And now you see the truth."

"Genjiko," Katamari said, hefting his spear and walking slowly toward her. "What are you doing?"

"Mohai, that is the one we do not need," Genjiko said. "End him."

A hulking, bare-chested figure materialized from the shadows beside Katamari, his face covered by a large straw hat. With a savage roar he struck Katamari with a backhand blow. The Unicorn struck the wall hard and slumped to the floor, spear falling from his hand. Seppun Saito's eyes bugged in fear, and he moved quickly behind Sui.

"Traitor!" Kuma snarled, drawing his sword and charging toward the Inquisitor.

Genjiko held out her hand and unleashed a wave of blood red energy toward the Kaiu. Kuma fell to his knees as his bones filled with pain, trying to tear their way free from his flesh. He fought back the urge to cry out in pain, steadied his grip on his sword, and rose to his feet.

"Fight, Kuma!" Sui shouted, summoning her own magic. The strength of the ancestors flowed into Kuma. His sword blazed a brilliant white, filled with the power of the kami.

"I will not fall to your magic," Kuma said, moving slowly through the haze of red toward the Inquisitor.

"Perhaps not," she said, looking at him without concern, "but I would recommend you sheathe your sword, for you need my magic now."

"What?" Kuma asked.

A anguished shriek was quickly cut off in the rear of the chamber. Kuma looked up to see his wife fall to her knees, one hand clutching her throat. Blood streamed over her fine orange robes. She looked up at Kuma, golden eyes filled with pain and terror. Behind her, Seppun Saito wiped his bloody knife on a scrap of cloth.

"My magic can still heal her, Kuma," Genjiko said with a smile, "but I will let her die unless you choose to aid me. Choose swiftly."

"She will betray you," Iuchiban whispered in his ear.

Kuma ignored the Bloodspeaker, and dropped his sword. Genjiko's haze of blood faded, allowing him to move freely again. He ran to his wife's side. Genjiko gestured and the wound on Sui's throat healed, though blood still streamed from her mouth.

"Just enough that she will live," Saito said. "We don't want her speaking to cast her magic, after all."

"Damn you, Saito," Kuma said, glaring up at the Seppun. "How could you be a part of this?"

The Seppun shrugged. "If you truly knew me for what it was, you would be far more surprised I could play the part of the bumbling fool for so long. Now be silent, and let my mistress speak."

"Thank you, Jin," Genjiko said. She turned toward the casket. "Iuchiban," she shouted in a triumphant voice. "We have come to free you. We have brought the descendant of Kaiu Gineza, and his ancestor's soul is bound within him. We have knowledge of the construction of these tombs, and the power to unravel the magic that binds you. We will free you, if you agree to our terms."

"Interesting," Iuchiban replied. "Though before I listen to any terms I would know who I am truly dealing with, and what it is you require of me. You are one of my servants, I know that much, though the magic you wield is not entirely my own. Let me see who you really are."

"Fair enough," Genjiko replied. She gestured and spoke a word of magic. Her deep orange robes changed, replaced with a thin kimono of pale lavender. Her short severe hair grew long and lush, falling over slim shoulders. Her body became fuller, more attractive, and her face changed from a dour Inquisitor to an oddly beautiful, doll-like countenance.

"I am Shahai, the Dark Daughter," the woman said, drawing a short knife from her belt. "I will free you, Iuchiban, if you will help me make the Dark Lord whole again."

"I am listening."

* * * * *

Kuma looked up at Saito, eyes widening with fear and alarm. Finding no blade, he lunged at the Seppun with his bare hands, but his fists passed through the man's body harmlessly.

"Calm yourself, Kuma-sama," the Seppun said with a sinister smile. "Finish the story."




Kaze no Shiro Return


Togashi will return!