Enemy of My Enemy, Part Four
By Rich Wulf
This had been his home.
Isawa Sezaru looked at the surrounding ruins with a grieved expression. In all honesty, he had not dwelled much upon the fate of Otosan Uchi in the last seven years. At the time of its destruction, his thoughts were consumed with seeking vengeance for his father's murder. The destruction of the city and deaths of so many of its inhabitants were merely more crimes heaped upon the Dark Lord's name. After Daigotsu's defeat, other matters had occupied his mind. His indoctrination to the Phoenix Clan. His duties as Voice of the Emperor, helping his brother secure the Steel Throne. The hunt for the Bloodspeakers. All that time he had avoided this place, perhaps on purpose. Now, to see it again, to find so many familiar sights of his childhood now ruined or defiled, Sezaru could not help but feel that a part of his past was now dead.
The Wolf bowed his head and pressed on. Now was not the time to dwell upon such things. He strode purposefully through the streets of Otosan Uchi. Matsu Aoiko and the half dozen Lion soldiers that had accompanied her followed in his wake. Her eyes scanned every shadow in their path intently. In the distance, the screams and clash of battle sounded over the ruins.
"This is not the way, Sezaru-sama," she whispered. She pointed toward the iron citadel that loomed above the city. "Iuchiban's heart lies there."
"But knowing its location will do little good if we cannot reach it before the Bloodspeaker detects our presence," Sezaru replied. "To insure that, we must first meet with my ally."
"The one you mentioned before," Aoiko replied. "Katamari."
Sezaru nodded. They moved toward a ruined building. The kanji for ten thousand' was emblazoned upon a scrap of cloth that hung above the door. Aoiko saw movement within.
"I remember that mark," she said. "It is the symbol of the Yotsu family."
Sezaru nodded. "Their dojo was destroyed shortly after Iuchiban moved into the city," he said. "Many died, but others escaped. They know the ruins better than any save perhaps the Nezumi."
"I know," Aoiko said. "I fought beside them here, once before. I did not realize they remained in Otosan Uchi after Iuchiban's invasion."
"Why would they not?" Sezaru asked. "The Hantei Dynasty granted them a great honor by giving them domain over the Yatoshin District of the city. Though the city has fallen, they refuse to abandon their duty."
"I have never understood why they would choose to protect such a forsaken place," she said.
Sezaru shrugged. "To the Yotsu, their past promises are all that set them apart from common wave-men. Can you truly tell me that you do not know what it is like to live in the shadow of past glories?" Sezaru looked at the three-pronged magari-yari in Aoiko's hand, the same style of spear for which her grandfather had been renowned.
Matsu Aoiko looked away, back toward the doors of the ruin. They opened slowly and a pair of ronin in dark brown armor stepped out, bows in hand and arrows strung. They looked at Sezaru and the others suspiciously.
"Be at ease, brothers," said a voice behind them. "This is truly Isawa Sezaru, not a Bloodspeaker illusion." A thin man in dark purple robes stepped out of the dojo, his face covered by a steel mask.
"Katamari-san," Sezaru said. "I have returned with allies."
"We will need them," Katamari said.
Aoiko glared at Katamari. "You did not say your ally was a Unicorn," she said.
"Does it matter?" Sezaru asked sharply.
Aoiko scowled but said no more. The Unicorn only looked at the Lion evenly.
"Kisada's forces have distracted Iuchiban," Sezaru added, "but they cannot delay him for long. The Immortal's heart lies within the iron citadel, and we must find it before he realizes our intent. Do the Yotsu know a way inside?"
"No," Katamari said, "but they have found one who does."
Katamari stepped to one side and one of the ronin gestured to someone within the ruins. A tiny figure in a tattered cloak scurried out, tossing back its hood to reveal a long, rodent muzzle with bushy white whiskers. Its fur was streaked with gray. A Nezumi.
"This is E'skee," Katamari said.
Sezaru looked at the creature expectantly.
"Bloodspeakers come to tunnels beneath city," the creature said in a broken, quavering voice. "Seek-seek. Kill-kill. Kill warriors. Kill chief. Only few of us left now. Why you come, white-hair?"
"To destroy Iuchiban and all who follow him," Sezaru said coldly.
The Nezumi's whisker's twitched and its black eyes gleamed with eager malice. "Then you follow E'skee," the creature said with a cackle. "I show you the way."
Some said that the Great Bear knew no pain, but this was a lie. Through years of hardship and battle, Hida Kisada's body had become a network of scars and bruises. Old injuries healed, but never truly died away. There were few major bones in his body that had not, at some point, been broken. He had born it all with grim courage, fighting on with wounds that would have killed lesser men. Kisada always pushed the pain aside, right up until the end. He had even survived for two years after the Dark God had buried the last Hantei Emperor's sword in his belly.
But the pain never really left. Over the years it had grown, the echo of old injuries joining a chorus of agony with new wounds. He bore it all with typical tenacity, but when he died it had been almost a relief. All the old pains were washed away. His body had become whole, strong, and young once more. Since his return to mortal flesh, the Great Bear had been almost disappointed to find so many familiar scars now missing, but he had not missed the pain.
And now it had returned.
Outside the north wall of Otosan Uchi, the Great Bear stood alone. He staggered but did not fall as Iuchiban's magic surged through his body. His head bowed. One knee buckled, nearly touching the ground. His hand tightened around the iron-bound haft of the tetsubo and were it not for the crackle of black flame that coruscated around his body, Iuchiban might have heard the wooden haft creak in the Crab's grip. Around Kisada lay the bodies of a dozen Crab warriors, stripped of life. When the Bloodspeaker appeared, they had sprung forward to defend their leader. They paid the ultimate price. Many more rallied to defend Kisada, but Iuchiban's armies of tsukai and their undead servants surrounded him on all sides, forcing his troops back
"Your armor is quite impressive," Iuchiban said. "A reproduction of Ketsuen, forged in the Celestial Heavens, no doubt. It may shield you from elemental spells and blood magic, Kisada, but it offers little protection from my power."
"Then why can you not finish me?" Kisada taunted, glowering at the Bloodspeaker.
"What happens, I wonder," Iuchiban hissed, "When a god dies?" The Bloodspeaker held one hand toward the great bear, plumes of black flame extending from his fingers and suffusing Kisada's armor.
Every old injury of his past life flared through Kisada anew. Every old wound burned red throughout his body. The Great Bear gritted his teeth and took a single step forward.
Iuchiban flinched, but only slightly. "Your strength is incredible, Kisada," the Bloodspeaker whispered. "Your soul flutters like a torn standard, sewn together with rage, pain, and denied ambition. You are no better than me, Great Bear. Only my willingness to seize power rather than bow to it separates us. Only your weakness separates us."
Kisada scowled and took another step toward Iuchiban. Iuchiban sneered and clenched his fist, and the pain intensified. Kisada grunted as blood streamed from the corner of his mouth, but he did not cry out. Every bone in his body shook with agony, resounding with the memories of every defeat. Bitter memories coursed through him. He had fought all his life, and on into the next, but nothing had changed. Nothing mattered. Almost everyone he had known was dead now, and too few now walked the fields of Yomi because of him. The souls of most of his old soldiers now dwelled in darker realms. Otosan Uchi lay in ruins. He had always fought, but in the end did it matter?
"For the Great Bear!" he heard the desperate voice of Hiruma Todori call out across the battlefield.
Kisada focused on the pain, and on the memories it brought. He felt the fists of the older Lion boy striking his face when he had moved to defend a peasant's life. He felt the agony of seeing Sukune's body tied upon the Terrible Standard, and the truth that was revealed on that day. He felt the Ninth Kami twist steel in his belly, and saw the resolve in Yakamo's eyes as he bore his father's body through the enemy army. He embraced the memory of every defeat, remembering the victories they later bore. The Great Bear lifted his head, dark eyes staring grimly into Iuchiban's.
Iuchiban chuckled. "Incredible," he repeated. "Hardly any sense in letting such strength go to waste. Your shell will make a suitable home for my soul, Kisada."
As their eyes locked, Kisada felt a force intrude upon his soul, the will of the Bloodspeaker attempting to force his spirit from his body. The wracking agony redoubled and a seizure shook the Great Bear's body. The Great Bear wavered and stumbled backward, collapsing against a fallen heap of rubble and slumping to the ground. The Bloodspeaker regarded the fallen Crab curiously. The flames that lapped at his armor flickered and died as Hida Kisada lay still. It was not unusual for a particularly strong soul to resist the possession, but they never survived.
"You should not have resisted," he said with a deep sigh as he stood over the lifeless body. "My soul is like the mountain wind while those of all mortals are as candles. You have destroyed yourself, Hida Kisada. My knowledge, my magic, is supreme."
Kisada's legs moved, more quickly than Iuchiban expected. He clamped his feet around the Bloodspeaker's right leg and twisted, throwing Iuchiban to the ground. Before the Bloodspeaker could gain his bearings, Kisada's tetsubo lashed out in a deadly arc, taking him across the face with a wet crack. The Great Bear was upon him then, seizing the collar of Iuchiban's kimono and lifting him into the air. The Bloodspeaker's eyes stared in a blank daze. His shattered jaw worked helplessly, unable to speak his spells.
"Your knowledge cannot save you, Bloodspeaker," Kisada roared, the pain of moments before now fueling his strength. "Your magic cannot save you. Nothing can save you."
Iuchiban's vision cleared and he looked down at the great bear. A smile creased his maddened eyes, and a wail of torment rose from the Bloodspeaker army. A dull explosion resounded, and a wall of blood washed over the Great Bear and his foe.
"Is that way," the Nezumi said, pointing down the tunnel ahead. "Tunnel leads beneath black tower."
"Does it lead inside?" Aoiko asked.
The creature shook its head. "No-no," he said. "Bloodspeakers careful not to open fortress to tunnels. Do not want things that live down here to get inside. Scouts happy to leave it that way. Do not want things that live up there getting out." The Nezumi looked back at them, his black eyes shining in the lantern light. "Wall of stone between here and there but E'skee thinks that no stop-stop you. Smell powerful magic in white-hair."
"You can go now, E'skee," Sezaru said, studying the tunnel ceiling. "We will take care of things from here."
The old Nezumi nodded eagerly, though he paused to study the end of Aoiko's three-pronged spear. She bowed her head to him before he vanished into the darkness. She looked quickly at Katamari, who studied her with an unreadable expression.
"Such respect for a Ratling?" Katamari asked.
"They are more valiant than most give them credit, Unicorn," she answered. "My grandfather won many battles against Junzo's hordes during the Clan War thanks to their aid. They are more reliable than many humans I could name."
"I was not a part of your clan's war with mine, Aoiko," Katamari replied in a tired voice. "I was not even in the Empire at the time. Do not blame me for your clan's defeat."
"Your squabbles are irrelevant now," Sezaru said, not looking back at them. "We have a war to win." Sezaru placed the white porcelain mask over his face. "Return to the Yotsu, Katamari. Help them defend the city. Kisada may need reinforcement." With a gesture, a wave of rippling energy coruscated from his fingers, causing the ceiling of the tunnel ahead of them to violently crumble.
"Kisada warned us not to draw attention," Aoiko said, wincing at the noise.
"The time for subtlety is past," Sezaru replied, climbing the piled rocks toward the citadel above. "I can block Iuchiban's ability to monitor his servants for a time, but we must move swiftly. Show us the way, Aoiko."
The Lion nodded, clambering up the heap of rubble and into the halls above. The interior of Iuchiban's keep smelled of copper and burnt incense. The walls and ceiling were crafted of the same dull black steel as the exterior. A band of three tsukai and a dozen undead charged at them immediately, screaming their master's name. Aoiko met the charge with her spear, lancing two of the lifeless creatures and pinning one of their masters to the wall. Her soldiers fanned out expertly, without any of their typical battle cries or shouts. In a flurry of shining blades and flashing magic, the Bloodspeakers were quickly dealt with. Yet as they fell, the clash and chaos of battle continued deeper in the citadel. Aoiko listened curiously, wondering at the source.
"Kisada's army could not have advanced so quickly," she said. "Someone else attacks Iuchiban's fortress."
"Who?" one of her soldiers asked.
"The enemy of my enemy," Sezaru said. "So it does not matter. Keep moving. Find the heart."
Aoiko nodded, though she did not discount the possible threat. She clutched the glowing stone in one hand. Holding it, she gained a sense of something in the chambers above. She also felt a curious twitch at the edge of her consciousness. It was a sense of rage, grief, and fear. It was weak, but difficult to ignore. "It is somewhere above," she said. "We must find stairs."
Sezaru looked up, narrowing his eyes. "To Jigoku with stairs," he hissed. "This place reflects Iuchiban's soul. It is designed to confound intruders, and will never take us where we wish to go unless we make our own way."
Clasping his hands above his head, the Wolf summoned a column of pure white flame from the heart of his body, tunneling up through the ceiling. Aoiko and the others shied away, dazzled by the heat and brilliance. When the light faded, a perfectly circular hole opened through the floors above them. The rim shimmered bright orange with heated metal. Speaking words of magic, the Wolf summoned a whirling pillar of air spirits and whisked them upward through the heart of the tower. As they passed through the dozens of levels within, Aoiko caught glimpses of robed Bloodspeakers and undead fighting ordered squads of samurai in ebony armor. Sezaru's face grew dark at the sight of them, but he did not pause. Aoiko felt the hidden heart grow closer, and with it the peculiar sensations that haunted her thoughts. They arrived at the top of floor to find a large chamber, empty save for a pool clear of water at the northern end. An iron box rested at the bottom of the pool.
It all seemed too easy by far.
Aoiko's face paled when she looked upon the box. She felt distinctly ill. A Lion was trained almost from birth to ignore fear and cast aside doubt, but it was difficult to resist the feelings that built at the sight of the box. A Lion could deal with her feelings aptly but these were not her feelings. What sort of man was Iuchiban to create a thing of fear and misery such as this?
"That's it," she whispered.
Sezaru nodded and brushed past her. As he approached the pool, the water clouded a dark red. The Wolf seemed neither concerned nor surprised, even when the murky water rose and twisted into a human figure and looked at them with shining red eyes.
"Begone, puppet," Sezaru snarled, still advancing.
"Puppet?" the abomination said with a laugh. "I am the Oracle of Blood, a reflection of the Immortal One."
"Oracle?" Sezaru replied, stopping to look up at the strange spirit. "You would compare yourself with my mother, wretched thing? Does Iuchiban fancy himself a dragon now?"
"The elemental dragons should be so fortunate as to have their power compared to his," it replied. "The Master knows you are here. Soon, he will come."
Sezaru extended a hand toward the Oracle, releasing a bolt of crackling lightning. The Oracle twisted, dodging the blast, releasing a wave of red fire in reply. Sezaru lifted a shield of swirling energy to protect himself but the soldiers that stood too close were not so fortunate. Aoiko dove aside, feeling the magic sear her flesh through her armor. Three of her bushi fell instantly, twisted black husks in melted armor. Sezaru did not seem to notice, his attention focused upon the Oracle as magical energies crackled between them.
"This beast draws power from the heart," Sezaru hissed. "They must be separated."
A Lion soldier charged the Oracle, screaming the Matsu name. The Oracle whipped at him with one tendril arm, spearing him through the chest. A second charged in the same manner, and for a moment Aoiko thought her men had gone mad. She saw the third look back at her with a hopeful expression, and she understood. They did not hope to defeat it, only delay it while she acted. The Oracle lashed out at the warriors even as Sezaru occupied it with his magic. Aoiko ran past them all, sensing the heart's location flawlessly through the seething blood. Plunging her hand through the creature's liquid body and deep into the pool, she tore the iron box out of its body. It looked down at her, red eyes gleaming with rage, but the light was much dimmer than before. Sezaru redoubled his efforts and clapped his hands together, releasing a wave of scorching blue flame that evaporated the Oracle and left Aoiko dazed but unharmed.
She looked around her to see the terrible aftermath. The floor was now coated in the slick red fluid that had once been part of the Oracle. Four Lion soldiers lay dead, another two injured. Sezaru gasped for breath, sagging visibly with the effort of his battle, but his eyes were focused past Aoiko with a grave look. She peered over her shoulder to see a tall, thin figure emerge from the darkness, dressed in fine black robes.
"Daigotsu?" Sezaru hissed.
"No." The stranger pushed back his hood and revealed a handsome face framed with dark black hair.
"Rezan," Sezaru said in a low voice. "I heard you had joined the Dark Lord."
"And so I have, mighty Voice," the poet replied. "When he saw your impressive entrance, he dispatched me to offer his greetings as well as his promise that his soldiers will do yours no harm."
"So the Dark Lord is here?" Sezaru demanded, his tone menacing. "If he thinks to interfere with me&"
Rezan chuckled. "You misunderstand, Sezaru," Rezan said. "If Iuchiban's heart were to be destroyed while his body still lives, his soul would inevitably be lost and he would become a true follower of Fu Leng. But that is not what Daigotsu wants." He offered Sezaru a wicked smile. "The Dark Lord wants Iuchiban to die, and if he must set his pride aside and let you strike the final blow to see it done& so be it."
"Where is Daigotsu?" Sezaru demanded, moving swiftly toward Rezan.
"Far from here," Rezan said. "Where your thirst for vengeance will not cloud your judgment. Do what you must do, Wolf. We are content to withdraw. We will take those Bloodspeakers whom Katsu was able to sever from their master and return to our city. The Dark Lord has faith in you. Fu Leng's blessings will be upon your battle."
Rezan did not flinch as Sezaru's hand shot forth from his robes, seizing him by the throat. An nimbus of magical power crackled around the Wolf's body. He seethed with rage.
"Kill me if you must show me that mercy," Rezan said calmly. "So long as Iuchiban dies, my life's purpose is complete. I will be with my love again in Jigoku."
Sezaru looked into the poet's eyes for a long moment then snatched his hand away, turning his back on Rezan in disgust. "No mercy for the damned," he said. "Go and grovel at the foot of your Dark Lord, Rezan. Beg him to kill you, for I will not."
Rezan glared at Sezaru's back in silent anger then swept from the chamber without a sound. The Wolf turned toward Aoiko, his eyes fixing upon the bloody iron box she clutched in both hands.
"Give it to me," he said.
Aoiko hesitated, unnerved by the wrathful look in Sezaru's eyes then offered Iuchiban's hidden heart to the Wolf.
"Take your soldiers and go," Sezaru whispered to her. "The last battle I must fight alone."
Kisada stood fast as the wave descended, losing Iuchiban as the burning crest of blood crashed into him. He had seen many bizarre and horrible things during his long career on the wall and in his defense of the Celestial Heavens, but nothing quite like this. Iuchiban's spell had literally torn his remaining followers apart, summoning a tsunami of corrupted fluid and building upon it with black ichor torn from Jigoku itself. He felt his skin blister and burn beneath his armor. He closed his eyes and mouth tightly, holding his breath as he waited for the wave to wash past. For nearly a minute he stood amidst the torrent, until finally the wave died away as swiftly as it had come.
Kisada now stood on the ruined, blood-soaked fields beyond the walls of Otosan Uchi. The ravaged bodies of Bloodspeakers and their undead servants lay all about. Further away, a ring of Crab and Lion soldiers watched in awe from where they lay scattered on the ground from Iuchiban's spell. The Fortune of Persistence had never wavered or fallen. A cheer came up from Hida Daizu and was quickly echoed by the other soldiers.
Kisada felt none of their elation. His eyes sought only his enemy. Iuchiban was nowhere to be seen. He had retreated from the field without finishing the fight. Kisada knew that could mean only one thing.
He hoped that Sezaru and Aoiko were not too late. All was in their hands, now.
Sezaru stood at the edge of the murky pool, studying the iron box in his hand. It was extraordinary to think that such a small thing could keep an Empire in fear for so long. He dropped the box to the floor. It landed with a metal clang, the lid hanging open, empty.
One wall of the iron citadel peeled away with the sound of rippling silk. Iuchiban stood revealed there. His eyes were fixed upon the box that lay on the floor. There was no fear there. There was only a dull anger and a certain resignation as his gaze shifted to Sezaru.
"You have destroyed my heart," Iuchiban said.
Sezaru studied Iuchiban wordlessly. He had removed his mask and now looked at the Bloodspeaker with a weathered, tired expression.
"You are Sezaru, the Wolf, the one whose hunters seek me in the Emperor's name," Iuchiban said. "I know of you. The one who wears a mask when he kills, so that he might still see a holy man when he spies his own reflection. A worthy man who stands in an unworthy Emperor's shadow. A man not afraid to see blood on his hands. History may not repeat itself, but it does seem to stutter."
Sezaru's voice was cold, toneless. "And you are the would-be conqueror," he said. "The coward who threw away his forces at the last moment to spite a superior enemy. Why did you betray all those who swore their lives to you? Why do they throw their lives away merely to do all the damage they can before you die? Is their loyalty worth so little to you?"
"Is that what you think, Wolf?" Iuchiban replied, studying Sezaru's face intently. "Do you think that any of them ever mattered?"
"Why did you leave your heart behind, Iuchiban?" Sezaru asked. "You must have known it was what I sought. You defeated yourself."
"A curious question, considering the source," Iuchiban answered with a bitter smile. "You know nothing of me, Wolf. I am the conqueror I was always meant to be. The Empire might never serve me, but it will always remember me. I have risen above life, above death. Whatever happens here, my memory will scar the Empire for all time. Unlike you, I am a pawn no longer."
Sezaru's expression turned curious, confused by the Bloodspeaker's words.
"One last battle," Iuchiban whispered. "See if you can destroy me before Jigoku claims my soul."
Sezaru looked at Iuchiban with a strange, deep sadness. He replaced the porcelain mask over his face and his eyes became dead once more.
Iuchiban held his hands out to his sides, bloody flame erupting from his palm.
Sezaru copied the gesture, though the flames were slightly brighter.
The Wolf and the Heartless clashed atop the iron citadel, and the explosion could be seen even by Kisada's distant legions. The two men faced one another, neither turning away, as raw power boiled around them. The citadel shuddered beneath their feet, feeding directly from its master's ebbing energies. Sezaru's feet lifted into the air as a section of the floor crumbled away. Iuchiban dropped to one knee, a strangely beatific look on his face. His skin began to fall away in strips. His white kimono streaked with stains of blood, or perhaps had always been stained so. He reached upward with one hand, seeming to grasp for Sezaru but raising his hand to the sky instead.
"I dared look into the heavens, Sezaru," he whispered in a mad voice, "and the heavens looked away."
The citadel finally crumbled beneath Iuchiban's feet, crushing the Bloodspeaker's body as he fell in a cascade of rubble and magical flame.
Hida Kisada sat upon the hill beyond the western wall. His armor lay in a heap beside him. He cleaned each piece carefully by hand as he stared into the pyre of burning dead. The bodies, Bloodspeaker, undead, Lost, Crab, and Lion alike had been piled into a communal heap and set ablaze with no more ceremony than a hurried prayer spoken by Iuchi Katamari. With so much dark magic at large here, the Great Bear knew better than to take chances. The dead could be honored another time, but their bodies must be destroyed.
Aoiko appeared at the edge of the firelight, watching Kisada silently. He did not address her for several minutes. She had never seen him without his armor; few Crab ever did. He glanced at her from the corner of the eye, curious to see if she was taken aback by the network of scars and bruises that now covered his arms and chest. If she was, she gave no sign.
"Sumimasen," Kisada said in a low voice.
"What?" Aoiko replied, surprised by the humble statement.
"I& apologize& for striking you when we first met," he replied, looking at her intently. "I had a great deal on my mind and was in no mood to be trifled with. You have proven yourself a worthy ally, Aoiko-san, and I would have no bad blood between us."
Aoiko frowned. "An apology is unnecessary," she said. "Had you questioned the honor of my clan, I would have done the same."
Kisada only nodded silently.
"My soldiers told me what happened to you after we left," she said softly. "Few men could survive what you endured."
"I did not expect to survive," Kisada replied gravely. "In truth, perhaps I did not hope to survive."
She stepped into the circle of firelight, her eyes confused now. "What do you mean?" she asked.
"The trolls built Oblivon's Gate for a single purpose," Kisada said. "To recall a hero in time of need. When that need was over, the hero always returned where he belonged to the realm of the dead." Kisada looked at her meaningfully. "But the Gate is powerless now, and I am still here."
"Is that such a terrible thing?" she asked. "You are a hero, a legend. The Empire needs samurai such as you."
"Does it?" he asked. "The heroes who returned during the War of Spirits thought the same thing, yet they tore the Empire apart."
"They were led by a madman no better than the one we defeated tonight," she answered.
"And who is to say I won't be a worse madman than the Steel Chrysanthemum ever was?" he asked. "I did not live a faultless life, Aoiko. If Toturi had never proclaimed me a Fortune I might be reviled as much as Bayushi Shoju. But nonetheless I find that life has been returned to me." He was silent for a long time. "Now what do I do with that life?"
Aoiko smirked as she across from the Great Bear. "Kisada-sama, I do not think I know any soul in Rokugan who can answer to that question."
The Imperial Palace was a place where one could easily become lost, a twisted ruin of crumbled architecture and cavernous underground tunnels Even the Yotsu and Nezumi avoided this place, the heart of Otosan Uchi's corruption. A soul could retreat to the abandoned ruins and have only the ghosts of the Seppun and Hantei to keep him company.
Outside the city, the Crab, Lion, Yotsu, and Nezumi gathered in celebration. On this day, the Immortal Iuchiban had finally been defeated. The soldiers were happy to be alive, happy to see such a powerful menace to the Empire gone forever. So intent were the victorious heroes that few noticed that the Wolf was nowhere to be seen.
In a forgotten chamber of the ruined Palace, Isawa Sezaru slumped against the wall in bitter silence. In his youth, this room had been a familiar hiding place, and despite its corruption it offered him strange comfort now. The young man buried his face in his hands, his mask discarded beside his dagger on the floor nearby. He was torn with unfamiliar feelings, the echoes of power that he had felt when he held Iuchiban's heart for the last time.
His ghostly white hair was a rarity, the sign of a child destined to wield great magical power. Such an ominous blessing did not come without cost. Others often avoided him, fearful of his strange gifts. Though the eldest surviving son of Toturi the First, he had long ago accepted that Rokugan would never accept him as Emperor.
"You were always stronger alone."
That truth, at least, offered some small comfort.