Central District, Teikoku
(11th of Eleint, 1491 Dalereckoning)
With just two more days before their agreement with the Karyudo Kisai agent expired and Gatsuyu’s home would fall under scrutiny, Kaileena led Zolin out of their home, skirting Kazeatari.
Her heart ached, and the rest of her body felt numb. She just couldn’t consolidate her memories of Hana, and the final image of that ruined, desperate creature she’d ejected from her brother’s house.
Nostalgia, it seemed, had proven inadequate.
Neither of them were dressed to negotiate with this Master Lenao; Zolin had his armor, freshly cleaned and polished, his sword at his belt and a buckler strapped to his wrist. He’d prayed for spells of healing, spells of banishment, and spells that would burn the wicked. Little golden embers danced along the length of his blade, a sign he’d empowered it with the raw essence of his god.
Kaileena, for her part, had prayed for spells of healing and protection. Spells that would strike terror into weak minds. And with her sorcery, she had more offensive powers at her disposal.
Females couldn’t carry weapons. Not in Teikoku and not in Turmish, where she had spent too much time. The habit stuck. She carried no weapons, but she’d forsaken a gown for a shirt of mail, over which was a sleeveless tunic in layered native style, and a pair of leggings.
It hardly covered her like proper armor; again, her impulses had influenced her somewhat; more focused on lightness and maneuverability and no small measure of style. The mail was thin, short-sleeved, and fitted to accentuate her figure. Her leggings, not unlike her dancer’s regalia, were cut to show much of her thighs, and belted with a sash, from which hung her holy symbol and a few enchanted talismans. Her calves and ankles were covered with flexible wrappings, reinforcing her sandals, which strapped over them and were tightly strung.
She wore her cloak loose, her hood down. At this moment, she was no frail, frightened creature, scurrying through her own homeland like a field mouse. She was going to barter with or defeat this enchanter, and nullify the bounty. Then she would deal with Minamoto, and anyone else who threatened her family.
For the second time, Kaileena cursed her pacifism, but she endured. Sometimes, though it felt wrong, it was necessary to fight to protect that which was most precious. She hadn’t fought then, when they had imprisoned her under false charges, when they had abused her, when they led her father to his execution.
She could fight now. She would fight now, if she had to.
Master Lenao’s iron tower was noticeable from a great distance; a single pillar of dark material against the forest canopy. It amazed her that she’d never noticed it in her hunts in nearby grounds.
While the trees were dense around the tower’s outer perimeter, within a bowshot they dwindled, leaving in their place fields of long grass and the skeleton of layered stone formations, perhaps a garden that had fallen into disrepair. As they approached, she observed small grooves in the tower’s surface; hints at a doorway, though there were no visible means of ingress.
Zolin held firm beside her, and she felt his hand against her arm, steadying her.
“Are you ready?”
What a question. Was she indeed?
Trembling, Kaileena managed a nod, though she wasn’t aware of it until he’d led her up to that indentation, as a thin line split its center, parting the doorway and allowing admittance. Steeling her will, she stepped inside.
The tower antechamber was much larger than she had expected from viewing the exterior, immaculately carved from stone, not iron, the walls flowing together if they had been forged of one colossal piece, with a support system wrought of buttresses and iron bars welded into intricate framework.
Only powerful magic could make such a home possible to build.
Surprisingly unfurnished, the entry chamber was composed of a large circular slab of brass-lined marble, with a roof of the same material held up by three supporting brass beams. Aside from seven candles encircling a round table, the room was utterly dark, and she could determine little outside of their radiance.
"Visitors?" A voice echoed in Nihongo, somewhere in the shadows of the outer edges of the chamber, calling to mind again how large the inside of the tower was, and they both startled, ”How curious. State your identities."
Zolin, all warrior instinct, held his sword and the ready, but it was pulled from his hand by an unseen force, and hurled forward where it struck a far wall with a resounding clang.
“My apologies, but you seem to have triggered the defensive enchantments by freeing your weapons.” The voice continued, utterly monotone, and a man appeared seemingly out of nowhere.
No, not a man… Something wasn’t right about it.
“I repeat; state your identities."
It was vaguely man-shaped, its “skin” a pale grey material. It looked like, for all the world, an unfinished clay sculpture made into the shape of a human, but lacking the subtleties. Its face, a featureless mask, was marked with a circle of strange runes, a similar circle marking its chest, where a faceted crystal was embedded, which emanated a faint red light.
Kaileena gulped, ”I am Kaileena. And this is Zolin Naran."
The...being, came closer, and a peculiar calm settled over it.
A temporary calm.
"Oh my!" the creature exclaimed, though it held no audible surprise in its droning, emotionless tone, ”Yes! You’ve finally arrived! Oh, how the master would be pleased...if...."
It paused, as if unsure how to continue, ”Well, no matter. Come in, come in! Be at home, since this is your home, and such a good home!"
It waved its hand in a mystic pass, and light filled the chamber. She clearly saw Zolin’s broadsword float towards them, where it hung suspended a hand’s breadth from him.
"You can have this back, goodsir." it added with a bow and a graceful flourish, and knowing Zolin couldn’t understand fully without the horn talisman affixed to his ear, Kaileena repeated it in common. The being studied her, and then repeated her own words, then, “A curious language. Not too difficult to analyze though. Will this suit you better, milady?”
Both of them tensed, and replied curtly.
Then, she posed the obvious question.
“Sorry, but…what are you?” Kaileena asked, and though it had no face or eyes, she could sense that it was smiling. “Why, I am in fact a construct; an artificial being created by Master Lenao. I was sculpted from a unique substance of his creation, and imbued with an artificial soul within a small fragment of a very rare gem created by complex alchemy. Details, details. You may call me Golem.”
“Golem, then.” Kaileena noted, flustered, “You aren’t who we expected. Where is Master Lenao? I have many questions for him. The bounty, for one, is a prominent subject.”
“Yes, yes, the bounty. Now that you’re here I’ll send word to have it revoked. I will speak of these things in detail...but my understanding of anatomy brings me to conclude you will be more amenable and more comfortable in the living area. Please, follow me.”
And without pause, it turned, towards a spiraling ascending stairway at the rear of the chamber, which led up through the ceiling. Daring a glance at her mate, who only shrugged, they followed, and allowed Golem to lead them all the way up the stairs, which led to a single door, somewhere close to the tower’s apex.
And they were ushered into the private quarters of the master enchanter. Unlike the lobby, the room was utterly lavish, with shelves upon shelves of books, scrolls, and curiosities, all leading up to a domed ceiling of elegant brass framework which conjoined at the center in rhythmic, almost hypnotic, swirling patterns. There was a smaller table, upon which rested ornate silverware, rows of various filled bottles, and a menagerie of well tended bonsai. There was a feather-down bed at the end, a rare luxury in these lands, and a small burning stove, which the construct promptly lit.
“And there we are.” Golem noted cheerfully, or at least Kaileena thought he meant to, “Rest, please, and be at ease. I am to extend every courtesy.”
Feeling the surface of the bed, she sat, while Zolin stood at her back, eyes darting warily.
She understood his trepidation. This wasn’t what either of them were expecting, and neither seemed to know how to react.
“I am here, then. Speak, please.”
It nodded, “Yes, well...this is a good deal to explain, so I must ask; what do you know of Master Lenao thusfar?”
“He is a skilled enchanter, a human but an outcast in these lands, filled with those who hate and fear magic.”
“Yes, true enough.”
Frazzled now, and no longer so uncertain, Kaileena came to the matter at hand.
“I know he knows of me somehow, and wished to bring me here.”
“Yes, true enough.” Golem repeated.
“Well, what is it then?” she snapped, tired and tense and very angry with this procrastinating construct holding at bay the truth of her heritage, “What do I have to do with him? Did he summon me to this realm?! Did he crossbreed me between disparate species? Did he craft me from the Blue Fire?! What in the nine hells am I?!”
Golem didn’t pause this time, “He is your father, Kaileena. You were born, naturally so, in this tower.”
She had to remember to breathe.
They eyed the strange, possibly dangerous construct, as it framed a reply.
“He passed some years ago, just after the...incident.” Golem explained, “He obsessed over your fate for months, after I searched for your body and failed to find it. You were still an infant, after all, so he assumed either someone had found you, and taken you in...or you had perished. He left me here in the tower in case you returned, to explain, and I placed the bounty after word of you in Fusestu reached me here in the tower. News travels slowly when you can’t go outside easily, you understand. Yes, Master Lenao is your father. Your mother was...well, he summoned her from the outer realms. Her name was Uchiki, and trust me when I say you’re a spitting image.”
“So I’m...half human?”
“Somewhat. He sired you, though by magical processes.”
Kaileena stilled, and didn’t reply, but the construct continued unimpeded.
“Primarily, you’re of an Outsider species; a Couatl, but a unique variant, given the circumstances of your birth. However, you are sadly unfinished.”
“What do you mean?”
“You are of a winged race, for one.”
Kaileena blanched, “What?”
“The Couatl are winged serpents...though your mother assumed a humanoid form through magic to be better suited, a form in which you are now trapped, but Lenao was nothing if not clever. He reactivated those dormant genes, bestowing unfinished wing buds just under and inside your shoulder blades. Buds that I, through enchantment, could stir to life. You would not become a true Couatl, trapped as you are in your humanoid Shape, but you could sail the skies like one.”
That was a little too much to consider.
“I could...have wings?”
“Yes. Feathered, like your mane.”
She’d envied the birds around her father’s house when she was young, their ability to fly. She’d felt her hair feathers and often wondered. The thought of actually realizing those desires was overwhelming.
“Lenao and Uchiki are my parents, then. I was...born?”
“Not formed of the ether, if that’s what you mean. He influenced your growth with magic, but your mother birthed you the natural way, yes.”
“How did they...meet?”
“What do you mean?”
Kaileena blinked, “You know...?”
Golem tilted his head curiously.
“What a silly question to ask; how did they come to fancy each other? You and this round-eyed foreigner seemed to have managed it easily enough.”
At her blush, and a light chortle from Zolin, Golem made a gesture like a shrug, “Lenao had ways of dealing with the outsider races, in goods or in knowledge, and he possessed a trinket that allowed him to intuit one’s essential nature. So as to not be deceived by some demonic or devilish being. When they met for the first time, he’d tried to summon something else entirely, but he’d fallen for her in moments, seeing her unfettered nature. I could read it in his pulse.”
“You were there?”
“Of course. She was a lovely creature. It doesn’t seem so unusual to me that they fell in love, despite their differing species. It certainly didn’t stop them from successfully reproducing; the one purely analytical measurement of pairing, and what an inadequate measurement it is in any case.”
Goddess, this was not what she was prepared for.
Then another, even more shocking realization struck her, “Wait, if Lenao managed to sire me...does that mean I could...”
“Breed with a human? Of course. I can make the preparations, or I could teach you how. You could breed with just about any species, save other certain extraplanar beings.”
Another long unrealized dream.
She wasn’t some experiment. She had a family, another family she’d never known. A father. A mother...
She shivered, and Zolin held her.
“I read in your pulse and motor functions that you are distressed. I will take my leave then. Rest well, explore the tower, and we will talk more in the morning. I, and all this tower are yours now; your rightful inheritance. It is yours to do with as you please.”
“Tomorrow, you will tell me more of my Family?” Kaileena asked, breathless.
“Of course, milady. Everything I know, which is a very good portion of what he knew. I served him for decades, after all. I am made with a fragment of his Soul. First, however, I need to draft a letter to send to Fusestu. Clear the bounty. And some more of the tower’s not inconsiderable funds to force a pardon from any previous offenses. Don’t want anyone skulking around your adoptive family’s home, looking for trouble.”
Kaileena blinked, “How did you know about that?”
“Maybe I read your mind.” Golem noted, “And deduced the relevance from your own concerns. Or maybe I just lied by pretending I didn’t know you were coming. Or maybe I simply deduced that someone had cared for you all these years. Or maybe I looked into the circumstances of your original arrest. Or maybe something else altogether. What’s to stop me from lying, in any case?”
The construct paused, then laughed, “I assume my attempt at levity was successful. Hah. Hah. Be prepared for my mischief, milady. Master Lenao did not keep me around all this time because I was an idle, mindless servant, after all”
...Left to wonder about their strange host, and the stranger circumstances of their visit, Kaileena lounged in the bedroom, poring through her birth father’s notes. He had a biting humor, by his very descriptive choice of language, and she assumed Golem’s peculiarities were a reflection of her father’s.
Most of his documents detailed his experiments; the differences between written Nihongo and native spell formulae left her guessing most of the scribbled notes and elegantly detailed runes, but she intuited vastly powerful conjuring and restorative spells. Transformative magic. What looked like a circle of sealing and protection. One in particular, pertaining to the wrapping of certain latent enchantments around solid objects, like weapons, she put aside, recognizing enough of it to attempt learning it.
It was well into the evening by then, and her eyes throbbed with the effort of so much reading. Golem returned to serve them a meal, but she and Zolin both cast prayers upon it to detect toxins or active magic. It was long cold by the time they finished, and Golem huffed about their discourtesy.
After the meal, she returned to furiously poring over Lenao’s research, looking for something more personal.
One particular specimen; a thin, loosely bound book with a weathered spine, caught her attention. Idly flipping through its pages, the handwriting changing dramatically from beginning to end. She imagined this one had been filled over the course of many years.
“It’s a journal.” she noted, breathless, “Lenao’s journal.”
This was what she’d sought. Flipping it back to the beginning, she hissed, rubbing her temples.
“Tomorrow.” Zolin insisted, “You aren’t a follower of Oghma, after all. Pace yourself.”
Sighing, Kaileena let him lead her to the bed.
“I’ll take first watch.” he told her, “I’ll wake you, and then we can switch. I still don’t trust that thing.”
Sharing his sentiments, Kaileena slept in her armor, and tried not to panic at the thought of resting in the home of an enchanter, especially one of such obvious affluence.
Even if he had been, by all appearances, her father.