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Blood Brothers, Part 4
By Rich Wulf

"Mohai never pierced the Heart of Iuchiban's Tomb&" Kaiu Kuma said, the realization dawning on him slowly as he stepped away from the Seppun. "Not until&"

"Not until you led the way," the Seppun replied with a thin, wicked smile. "Not until, guided by Gineza's spirit, you showed how to escape the Kaiu traps that filled the halls. That is why Mohai did not arrive in Iuchiban's resting place until after you did."

"But the Heart was open when we arrived!" Kuma replied. "The doors were rent asunder!"

"Iuchiban sensed our arrival," the Seppun replied. "He made it look as if the doors had opened so that our ruse would be complete. We did not expect the Immortal One to aid us in such a manner, but we appreciated it all the same."

"You used me& you used my ancestor& to penetrate the Tomb?" Kuma asked, dumfounded.

The Seppun sighed. "Idiot Crab, did you really value your ancestor's work so lightly? Did you truly believe we Bloodspeakers could force our way into the Hidden Heart after failing to rescue our master so many times? I find it ironic that while we afforded your family's handiwork the proper respect, you deemed it so unworthy that you unwittingly showed us the way to escape Gineza's traps."

Kuma scowled. "If you have such respect for Kaiu steel, then face it now," Kuma said. "Undo this spell that prevents me from touching you and return my sword."

The Seppun raised his eyebrows and smoothed one hand over his shaven scalp. He chuckled under his breath, as if pondering some bit of humor he could not put into words.

"How long, Saito?" Kuma asked, staring in silent anger at his former friend. "How long were you one of them?"

"Always," the Seppun replied. "And though I am truly a Seppun, my name is not Saito. I am Seppun Jin, and I have served the Bloodspeakers for nine decades. I will continue to serve so long as the blood magic sustains my life. I entered your service and became your friend due to the unique details of your heritage, so that a Bloodspeaker who knew you well would be prepared to help steer you toward your destiny. If you would know the truth, that was not the difficult part. Indeed, it was far more difficult to manipulate events so that you would be closely placed beside a sodan-senzo you would trust with your immortal soul."

"Sui?" Kuma replied in a horrified voice. "What has become of Sui?"

"We shall speak of that in time," Jin replied. "For the moment I am more interested in an earlier part of your tale. You mentioned another prisoner of Iuchiban, and entity called Adisabah, whom your brother encountered. Tell me more about him."

"Why should I tell you anything more, Bloodspeaker?" Kuma demanded.

"Because I ordered you to," Jin replied, "and in your current state I think that you shall find it quite difficult to refuse any of my demands."

Kuma scowled. He could feel a powerful force weighing down upon his will, forcing his obedience. He drew upon every reserve of strength he could muster, struggling to resist.

"Very well then," the Seppun said in a mild voice. "Let us compromise, then. Speak of something more interesting. Tell me more about our confrontation with Iuchiban, from your own unique perspective&"

* * * * *

Iuchiban's burial chamber was wrapped in darkness. The only light came from a sputtering torch on the floor, dropped when Sui's throat had been cut. Kuma knelt beside his wife, holding her close as she trembled with pain and rage. He glared up at the three Bloodspeakers. The man he had known as Seppun Saito stood only a few feet away, a murderous glint in his eye as he held the knife that had cut Sui's throat. Mohai stood near the chamber doors, over the fallen body of Kuma's brother, Katamari. Shahai stood with her back to him, facing the coffin where Iuchiban's remains rested.

"I remember you, Shahai," the voice of Iuchiban said, hoarse and hollow as it filled the chamber. "I visited you often in dreams in your youth. You dedicated yourself to me& but no longer. You obey Fu Leng now. You are his Dark Daughter."

"I acknowledge Fu Leng's power as I acknowledge yours," Shahai said coolly. "Yet I call no man master."

"Spoken like one who has truly embraced my philosophies," Iuchiban replied. "You spoke of a Dark Lord whom you wish me to aid?"

"Yes," Shahai replied. "Daigotsu, the corrupted son of the Hantei. He was slain in battle with the Four Winds, and though he returned from death his control over blood magic has been greatly weakened by the experience. I have done all that I can to restore his power, and yet I could find no solution. I could think of only one other soul in Rokugan with greater knowledge in blood magic than myself - Iuchiban the Heartless."

Kuma looked over one shoulder slowly, toward where Katamari lay. He could not tell if his brother were alive or dead. He prayed to the Fortunes that Katamari still lived. Perhaps, if his brother could still call upon his magic, there may yet be a way out of this&

"I do not see this Dark Lord with you, Shahai-chan," Iuchiban said in a mocking voice. "Does he fear me?"

"He is not aware of my plan," Shahai replied. "He is a man who prefers to solve his own problems."

"Quite admirable," Iuchiban answered with a dry cackle. "Sadly there is little I can do from here. Outside the Hidden Heart, I am less than a phantom. I can appear only in dreams, and only in the dreams of those who acknowledge me as master. Your Dark Lord, sadly, does not acknowledge me so."

"I will bring you to him," Shahai replied. "I have studied the work of the Phoenix and Scorpion shugenja who bound you here. I am certain I can remove the wards that hold your spirit within this room"

"Then do so," Iuchiban whispered, "and I shall aid your Dark Lord."

"Shadow woman and jailer are both filled with deceit, yes?" whispered a voice in Kuma's ear. "Trust neither of them, it thinks. Trust only the wise beast, you should.

"Who are you?" Kuma whispered, eyes searching the shadows but finding no source of the voice. The others did not seem to hear, not even Sui, who still huddled in agony beside him.

"It is called Adisabah, a prisoner like yourself," came the reply. "Statement - to its kind, it can smell treachery as one smells decay on fresh meat. Soon the shadow woman and the jailer will betray another, yes, and chaos shall reign. Observation - chaos breeds opportunity. It can offer you aid if you offer it aid in return. Perhaps your pack will yet survive this day if this opportunity is grasped."

"What is going to happen?" Kuma whispered.

"Watch and see," the voice replied with a tone of amusement.

"Why are we still alive?"

The voice laughed lightly. "You would not wish to know what the jailer's kind does with such meat, but it is of much more value while the heart still beats, yes. Be prepared, for hope blooms in even barren soil. We are not the only prisoners here."

"You will forgive me if my trust is not implicit," Shahai replied as she circled around the coffin. One long finger traced the rotted, jade-studded surface. "I have brought insurance of your cooperation." She reached into her lavender robes and drew out a sparkling red gem, the size of a man's fist. It filled the darkened chamber with a pale blood-red radiance.

"My ruby," Iuchiban said with a fond chuckle. "Where did you find that?"

"Ah, a ruby of souls. A wondrous beauty, yes?"" spoke Adisabah's voice in Kuma's ear again. "A prison it is, a prison in which to store souls until its bearer releases them. It has not seen one in many lifetimes, and never has it seen one so powerful. The jailer knows his craft well, yes he does."

"It does not matter where it was found," Shahai replied. "Only that it was found. Surrender yourself to the ruby. Allow me to store your soul within and I shall break the seals on this tomb so that you can be free."

"So I am to exchange one prison for another," Iuchiban replied.

"Or you can remain here," Shahai replied, replacing the ruby in her robes. "Daigotsu can always find another way."

"Shahai-chan, please," Iuchiban said, his voice mildly pleading. "I am not denying your request, merely& determining the extent of our bargain. I am to bind myself in the ruby and you shall unseal the tomb so that the ruby may be taken back to the City of the Lost& and there I shall aid your Dark Lord in restoring his power?"

Shahai nodded. "And once he is restored, you shall be released to do as you wish."

"I find that unlikely," Iuchiban replied. "Why would your Dark Lord wish to share the Empire with a being greater than himself?"

"You overestimate yourself if you believe you are greater than Daigotsu," Shahai replied with a smile.

"I see," Iuchiban said in a low voice. "Very well, then, Dark Daughter. Hold forth the ruby. I agree to your terms."

The air shifted before Shahai. A vaguely humanoid figure appeared there, staring at her with hollow, empty eyes. Its skin appeared flayed from its body, strands of meat and sinew spiraling off into the darkness where they were bound to the walls of the tomb. Kuma felt nauseous at the sight of it, but he could not look away.

"Be prepared, meat," Adisabah's voice said in his ear.

The ruby gleamed in Shahai's hand, and the hovering spirit moaned as its eyes fixed upon the gem. Coarse threads unwound themselves from the hovering figure, snaking through the air and attaching to the ruby. The spirit unraveled like a cheaply made bolt of cloth, moaning in pain and misery as its being was consumed by the gleaming jewel. In a matter of moments, it was done, and the red ruby now gleamed a darker shade.

"It is done?" Mohai asked in a gruff voice. "Iuchiban is within?"

"The spirit within the gem is ancient and powerful," Shahai replied. "I can sense its blood magic, greater than any I have ever sensed. It can be none other than Iuchiban. Begin the ritual, Mohai. We must break these wards if we are to take the ruby home."

Mohai nodded sharply and knelt on the ground. He drew a long knife across his palm and began to chant as the blood fell upon the floor. Jin began to chant as well, and Shahai joined in, pausing only to stare into the depths of the ruby for a long moment.

"Be prepared," Adisabah repeated.

"It is done," Jin said at last. "The seals on the Tomb are broken."

"Excellent," Shahai said, turning to look at the fallen Kuma and his wife. "Then all that remains is to -"

Shahai cut off sharply as Mohai seized her by the throat with one hand. Jin blinked in surprise, only to fall backward as the massive tsukai backhanded him across the face. Mohai stood, lifting Shahai from the floor easily in one hand, and threw his straw hat to the floor.

"Treachery is a powerful tool, Shahai," Mohai said, his voice echoing with a strange hollow tone, "but it must be used cautiously, for when it fails the consequences are dire."

"Mohai?" Shahai choked, looking down at him in disbelief. "Why?"

"Not Mohai," he said forcefully. "Iuchiban!"

"But the ruby&" she said hoarsely.

"Contains the soul of Yajinden, my most powerful if sometimes erratic servant. He attempted to betray me recently, and was also unsuccessful. I had been keeping his soul for my own amusement, and now he has proven himself useful." He held his other hand open before her face. "Please return him to me now."

"It thinks that they are adequately distracted," Adisabah whispered. "You should run now, yes?"

Kuma only stared blankly, stunned by the events transpiring before him, but then a rough hand seized his shoulder. His brother Katamari pulled him to his feet, then helped Sui up as well. Together, the three of them swiftly fled the chamber. They ran through the halls of the Tomb, and as they moved the shifting walls took on a more stable appearance. The mad, shifting images became solid stone as Iuchiban's spirit withdrew from them.

Katamari led the way, ducking down narrow hallways and darkened passages as if he knew the way, until arriving at last in a large square chamber. Each corner of the room was marked with strange occult symbols. One corner was empty. Two more were occupied by strange piles of bones the likes of which Kuma had never seen. The fourth was the most peculiar. A small man in rich silken robes knelt there, smoking a pipe. His head was that of a tiger's and his green eyes regarded them placidly.

"Now meat has seen the power of the jailer," it said, and its voice was Adisabah's. "The jailer walks as a ghost, as does its lieutenant, Yajinden, taking flesh of whomever they chose. The old souls perish, and new bodies become theirs. Lucky you were that you fled when you did, yes? So now what happens? Will the meat keep its word?"

Katamari only nodded. He scuffed one foot across the floor, marring the occult symbols that surrounded the creature only slightly.

Adisabah smiled. He waved one hand toward Sui and a shimmer of bright magic surrounded her throat. She looked up with wide eyes, the horrible wound the Bloodspeaker had given her now completely healed.

"Thank you," she replied.

"An honor to heal the Kitsu, who are brave where we are weak and weak where we are wise," Adisabah replied with a smile. "Give its regards to its cousins, when you see them on the spirit fields, yes?"

Sui frowned at the creature in confusion, but Adisabah did not explain. A low rumble echoed through the tomb. Dust filtered from the ceiling above, raining down upon them.

"We must escape," Katamari shouted. "Help us as you promised."

"Of course," Adisabah replied, tucking is pipe into its vest. "Once we escape the Heart, yes. Too much Rokugani magic in here. The spirits give it a headache, and it cannot concentrate. Lead, meat, and it shall follow."

Kuma nodded and took the lead. Though he held no weapon, he felt bolstered by their escape, ready to face anything. Sui was right behind them, followed by the strange creature. Katamari followed last, keeping a wary eye on Adisabah. The four moved through the tunnels for several minutes as the ground bucked and heaved beneath them, stopping often to circle around passages filled with rubble.

"What is happening?" Sui asked. "Why is the tomb collapsing?"

"The jailer hates his tomb," Adisabah replied. "This is the first chance he has been given to destroy it, a chance that he has seized! A pity - it is a connoisseur of destruction. It would enjoy witnessing this event were it not in the heart of said destruction. Let us not dally, yes?"

The four continued on, running through the halls of the Heart until they finally arrived at the exit of the Heart. A pair of enormous stone doors stood before them, now closed and sealed.

"These doors were not closed before," Katamari whispered.

"And they will not remain closed now," Sui replied. She gestured at the doors and spoke the words of magic. Cracks spread throughout their surface as the kami weakened stone and mortar. She gestured once, and the stone walls crumbled into nothing, revealing the greater tomb beyond the Heart.

As the stone fell away, a bolt of red energy sheared through the threshold, striking Adisabah in the chest. The creature released a feline roar of pain as he was thrown solidly into the opposite wall, collapsing in an immobile heap. Through the smoke and debris stepped Iuchiban, still cloaked in Mohai's stolen body. Shahai's ruby gleamed in his hand.

"You released my pet from his cage," Iuchiban said with a sneer, glaring down at them coldly. "While I commend your complicity in my release, I cannot forgive that."

Iuchiban held forth the ruby, and the halls filled with a bloody red light. Kuma felt a sudden push, a shift in the depths of his soul. An instant later, he was looking down upon his own body, and his body looked up at him in triumph.

"Flesh!" it shouted in Kuma's voice. "I have flesh again! Arigato, Iuchiban!"

"Be silent, Yajinden," Iuchiban replied, "and dispose of these others."

Yajinden rushed forward in his stolen body, seizing Katamari by the throat in a crushing grip and hurling him against the wall. Kuma reached out toward his brother, staring in surprise as his fingers began to fade in the air like mist. With horror he realized what had happened - Yajinden had forced his soul from his body, as the creature Adisabah had said.

He was dead.

Katamari grasped the amulet around his neck and began to speak words of magic. Iuchiban sneered in contempt and made a curt gesture. The amulet grew white hot in Katamari's hand. The Iuchi cried out in pain as molten metal and crystal streamed down his arm. Kuma shouted in rage, but his voice was lost. He looked to the fallen Adisabah, to the Bloodspeakers, to Katamari, but none took notice of him.

Then he looked upon his wife, and saw her looking back at him with golden eyes. She looked up at him with sadness and confidence. He felt her reach out to him with her magic. She probed his thoughts, seeking knowledge that was buried deep within his mind, knowledge fostered by a lifetime of Kaiu training. He opened himself to her, letting her know what she needed, the structural weaknesses of the tomb as he saw them.

"Now help Katamari," she whispered. "Help him stand long enough for me to do what must be done."

Kuma nodded. He had felt his wife's magic affect him before, filling him with the strength of his ancestors. Now he felt the magic from the other side, granting him a mystical connection to his living brother. He dragged Katamari to his feet, directed his hand as he struck out against Yajinden, sending his own stolen body flying backward to collide with Iuchiban.

"Kuma?" Katamari whispered.

"Fight!" he shouted in his brother's ear.

Katamari only nodded. He whispered a short spell and a brilliant yari formed of pure wind appeared shimmering in his hands. He clubbed Yajinden with it as he rose to his feet, toppling him again. He struck out at Iuchiban as the Bloodspeaker rose as well, but he caught the blade of the spear in his bare hand, looking down with mild curiosity as the air kami tore the flesh from his fingers. He looked at Katamari, but Kuma turned his brother's head aside so Iuchiban could not steal his soul. The Bloodspeaker's eyes narrowed as he noticed Sui behind Katamari.

She completed her spell, and thunder echoed through the Tomb of Iuchiban. In the last instant, Kuma saw Adisabah rise and lunge toward Katamari, just through the threshold of the Heart.

Then the creature and his brother were gone, and the ceiling came down on the rest.

* * * * *

"The Heartless One was most irritated to have his tomb destroyed and his new body damaged," the Seppun said, pacing the chamber with an impatient expression. "While he had intended to destroy it himself but there's quite the difference between the satisfaction of destroying one's own prison and having some intruder bring it down upon your head."

"Then I am glad Sui denied him that pleasure," Kuma said bitterly. "I hope the rest of his immortal life is filled with such disappointments."

"Of course," the Seppun rolled his eyes. "You and your bride gave your lives to mildly inconvenience Iuchiban. I am certain he was impressed. Your defiance accomplished nothing."

"At least I can defy him," Kuma retorted. "You worked for Shahai once, did you not? Now you are Iuchiban's lackey?"

The Seppun smiled. "For me there is little difference. Power is power, in the end, and Iuchiban's power is absolute."

"Oh?" Kuma replied. "If your power is so great then what have you learned from me? That my brother still lives, and that your master's prisoner Adisabah is free now. That is why you summoned my spirit isn't it? Because you hoped to find out where Adisabah has gone? I know nothing. You will learn nothing from me."

"I would not say I have learned nothing," the Seppun shrugged. "I have learned that fools are defiant not just till the end, but even beyond. We will find your brother. We will find the rakshasa, and you will help us, Kaiu Kuma." The Seppun took out a long knife and drew it across his palm, blood welling upon the blade. "The bonds of blood are strong indeed&"


 

 

 

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