Aika felt that something was horribly amiss long before she cleared the stairwell. The glowing fluid within the primer of her many-pointed spear cast shadows in all directions, hinting at monstrous shapes all about them. It felt like there was something just out of sight only she could sense.
“Light an orb. Now.” she advised, and the light that filled the chamber confirmed her fears. All about them, there were…-
She gasped. There were…Silkrit; the citizens of Baleblood. Their skin was red, like Ryū’s.
A collective hiss echoed off the walls around them, as their undead flesh singed in the light. Then, they attacked. Blood fountainhead onto her, onto the walls and floor. Screams filled the hallway.
Aika spun the spear overhead, and punched it into the back of one of the creatures, and its glass vials injected small doses of the sunlight fluid. The creature began to burn from the inside out, hissing with pain, its red eyes wild as it turned to her, tried to fight, then collapsed, thrashing.
“Use everything!” Shirudo snapped, and a dozen orbs sprang into existence, the blinding radiance sending the tide of half-breeds back down into the lower reaches. Aika looked around, and saw nowhere near as many of her people as before. Several were missing altogether, others...parts of them were visible, at least.
“Keep the torches and orbs burning. We press on.” Shirudo commanded sternly, but Aika noticed the stiffening of his back as he passed by the dead and dying.
The inner sanctum was silent, aside from the occasional echo from above as the slave armies battled each other. Her lesser kin stood at attention, weapons drawn, forming an aegis around the entrance. Nothing would interfere with what was to occur.
“Milady? Please allow me to join the battle.” A hooded figure asked from behind her, kneeling in supplication. Uejini smiled, laying a hand on her shoulder, “That will not be necessary; you will have plenty of time to redeem yourself of your weakness when we lay conquest to the next world.”
Wisely, she didn’t protest. Even if the half-breeds failed, there would be no battle when the slaves found their way down here. There would only be a massacre.
Outside the tower, in a previously unseen shaft of stone behind the garden plot, there was a stairway leading down into a natural cavern. Moss and Vines grew in uneven patches across tiles and support pillars in a style very alien to Teikoku, and windowless arches allowed in intermittent rays of sunlight.
At the end of the cavern there was a statue of a winged maiden, her hands outstretched by her waist, palms up. She wore robes not belonging to Teikoku.
And her features... Kaileena felt like she was looking into a mirror, “Is that her?”
“Yes.“Golem replied, “Minus the wings, of course. Your people used to have them, you know. Enough generations passed and they lost everything but a little of their coat of feathers.”
There was an alcove behind each hand of the statue, lined with candles. In the alcove behind the right hand was a richly ornamented urn, a twin for the one she now carried. She deposited it in the other alcove, kneeling.
“My mother. And my father...” she said softly, still in shock, “I had parents. A mother...and a father.”
“An adviser to the Hitorigami.” Golem added, “And an ambassador from Moonshadow. And skilled practitioners besides. So chin up, milady; you have the pedigree of two of the most powerful and influential beings this side of Teikoku. You’ve grown into a fine enchanter, like them, but remember that what you are is only the pale specter of what you could be.”
Shivering, fighting the devastation in her heart, Kaileena pressed her head against the floor, “Thank you. Both of you. For this, and for everything. I promise I’ll make something of myself. Something you’d be proud of.”
She rose, collected herself, “I’m ready. Let us see where this goes.”
Arainami had suffered enough assassination attempts to be able to adequately predict the steps before the actual event; new recruits, especially battle captives, one or two corpses, and repeated inconsistencies in crewman reports.
That was why she usually slept with her pistols.
An assassin was poised to strike, after a few moments of looming over her, lifting a bludgeon just in time to feel the barrel of her weapon against his chest. Arainami fired, the recoil knocking the fool off his feet.
Picking out the rest even in pitch darkness, she fired four more times. Igniting the burner lamp, she smiled, seeing four dead would-be assailants.
“You had no idea who you were threatening, did you? And you!” she snapped, firing her last round into the man who didn’t have a pool of blood under him, “Did you really think playing possum would work on me, you stupid little shit?!”
Footsteps were audible beyond the door, and she hastily reloaded one pistol while drawing her cutlass. More? No. Her men rushing to her, drawn by the gunfire, and she snarled at them.
“You idiots aren’t worth the brine you scrub your bodies with.” she growled, cracking the closest man in the nose with the brass butt of her pistol, “Where in the hells is Kiromichi? I’m going to throttle him for insisting we spare the sniveling flotsam from the enemy fleet.”
She heard a ruckus below deck, two or three levels down in the bowels of the leviathan, likely the visitor rooms.
“Get there, now, and find out what happened!” she snapped. Useless…
Arainami scowled, walking back into her room and throwing on a leather overcoat. Slipping her guns into their leather holsters inside, Arainami scratched at her hair as she entered the pulley-driven elevator. Pulling a lever, the double doors closed, starting the motor activation, and the cramped compartment began to descend.
Her mood deteriorated further as she saw Kiromichi smiling at her as she exited the lift, not even having drawn his strange blade. He was making the point that he’d dispatched his assassins with such ease that it was nothing to alarm him. The nerve…
“Ah, so they aren’t yours. Pity; it would have been interesting cutting my way to you.” Lord Kiromichi said slyly. Arainami smirked, “If it were my men you wouldn’t have made it to the lift.”
“Very well then; we can assume that it is either the other Pirate Lords, or Lord Tetsyyubo…or both. We’re becoming quite popular, are we not?” Kiromichi replied smugly, and she looked down at the prone assassins, “Kiromichi, these look like your people, not mine. And they aren’t armed like Karyudo Kisai.”
Each man was garbed in black, but in place of blades they had a black mace the size of a truncheon with a wire-wrapped handle, featuring a head that was completely spherical.
“Indeed, who uses a weapon like this?” the Lord of the West District asked, kicking a dead assassin idly, “It was a pity they tried to take me in the dark; I could have used nonlethal blows if I could have seen them.”
“That was the point, I imagine.” Arainami mused, looking at the intricate strap harnesses they wore, replete with pouches, “Their pockets are empty. What do you suppose they were carrying?”
Both of them reached the same conclusion, and Kiromichi stared at her wide-eyed.
“Damn!” he cursed, and Arainami grabbed the nearest subordinate, “We have satchel bombs hidden somewhere on the ship. Have the men prioritize the engine room, the furnace, and anywhere with black powder, now, damn it, now!” she yelled, tossing him aside, “I want any man not dead set to this! I don’t care what their ranking is, and if they act suspiciously toss them overboard with weights strapped to their feet!”
There! There it was.
He could smell her; so faint he nearly missed it. The child was travelling with a large group, nearby.
The realization chased away the last of the bubbling frenzy that'd fallen upon him in Makutsa. He’d fed on the blood of beasts; not enough to satisfy the thirst, but enough to keep him sane a while longer. And it appeared fortunate he’d done so.
A second scent filled his nostrils, one that he hadn’t expected; Kyokan!
Ryū drew his twin mithril wakizashi, Hyosho and Kaminari, tense as a bowstring. He noticed a rippling in the shadows about him, and knew he wasn’t imaging it. He hadn’t fallen to madness just yet.
“Oh? You can see me? Pity…I should have expected your lack of feeding to suitably amplify your senses.” he said dryly, appearing from his cloak of invisibility.
“You stand your ground? Oh dear. The thirst must have addled your brain. Alright then.” Kyokan said, laughing as he drew his sword. Ryū attacked first, spinning his twin wakizashi in a flourish, and upon contact he reversed the momentum and direction, one blade slightly above the other.
Impossibly fast, Kyokan held his blade at an angle that blocked both of them, breaking his strike and opening his defenses. Suffering a punch to the ribs, Ryū forced his body to travel with the momentum of the blow, delivering a hail of joint and pommel strikes, all of which were sidestepped, dodged or blocked by Kyokan, who managed minor hits across Ryū’s side and right arm.
Ryū cart-wheeled in midair, using his unconventional style of acrobatics. Falling inward, he caught Kyokan’s leg mid-descent, twisted the limb with an undulation of his abdomen and knee, and sank his fangs into Kyokan’s exposed thigh. He drank deeply, greedily, savoring the rush of pure Vitrium, and even as he was swatted aside like a doll, he smiled fiercely.
Hyosho and Kaminari flared as he hit the ground, and Ryū formed a column of energy that froze the air. Kyokan recoiled, ice crystals forming on his skin, eyelids, and reaching straight down his throat.
“Wha-” the Broodlord croaked, as Ryū invoked Kaminari’s enchantment, blasting the vampyre with a bolt of electricity that shattered the brittle, frozen areas of his body. Skin broke off like glass, and his mouth filled with blood from ruptured vessels.
Ryū could only watch, perplexed, and the Broodlord breathed heavily, as if in orgasm, “I cannot remember such divine pain...such wonderful enchantments. I’ve never heard of a vampyre wielding two Blood-Forged Blades, at least not two with different effects. You are interesting.”
“I am not a vampyre.” he replied, low and dangerous, and Kyokan smiled even wider, “Nonsense! You were created by a Matriarch after all. Of course you’re one of us.”
Ryū hissed, “You make no sense, creature.”
“I read the dossier. You and a batch of slaves were purchased and experimented upon, in an effort of creating a living weapon. Do you not remember? The blood kiss?”
Kyokan smirked, “It was ingenious, really; imbue a Silkrit with the dark gift, but sever the connection with the frontal lobe of the brain. While there was no time to lobotomize you, we’ve had no shortage of test subjects. Judging by all the mayhem you’ve caused as a mere prototype, well…”
“You would have quite the army.” Ryū concluded, “There’s just one problem; when I claim the power promised to me by Surthath, I will eradicate your entire Royal Line, and every other damned Skraul. I will save my people.”
He slipped around the inevitable strike and crosscut low, near the groin. Kyokan backpedalled, and swung an upward diagonal arc he was able to parry and counter with a riposte only with the greatest of effort
“Your course is charted by a god, as is ours, but God Death is by far the stronger.” Kyokan said, angling his blade to cut both across and down, and as Ryū parried, the attack merged into a shoulder strike to his side, throwing him off balance.
Kyokan landed another glancing blow with his black sword, drawing blood, and Ryū felt the agonizing numbness that accompanied it, that insidious enchantment sapping his strength, “The effect is not so potent against one of my own kind. Still, you appreciate the pain, do you not? I’d hate to think I’m boring you”.
Ryū turned his head, shrugging off the sensation. The Child! Where was her scent? Was he still facing west?! In the chaos, he must have been moving too much to keep his bearings.
“I don’t have time for this!” he growled, donning his mask and readying a weapon that he had been saving for a more desperate situation…
A burst of light enveloped him, burning his eyes and blistering his skin. Kyokan shook away the blindness while happily still being able to savor the exquisite pain of his own flesh melting. His vision cleared, and he braced himself for the next attack.
It never came. The forest around him was empty, the trees sheltering him in their shade. The half-breed was gone. Just as well.
“Very well, Ryū. You go and find the power I seek, and fulfill your use to me. I will be patient.”
“What is this?” Kaileena asked, as they approached a dense forest many hours east of Lenao’s tower, beyond even her old hunting grounds. It was not a forest of trees, or at least not trees she’d ever seen before. The trees had leaves, true enough, but they didn’t have bark, and were incredibly thin and narrow, like stalks. They were mostly green, some yellow, a tuft of leaves at their tips.
Itaku smiled at her discomfiture, “Those are bamboo trees, and this is the Eastern Fringe, a region larger than any district of Teikoku proper. No villages, no outposts. Just what you see, reaching for miles uncountable.”
“There are of course…them.” Maki added, disconcerted, “…the creatures.”
“The Kami.” Itaku corrected, “You would do well to show proper respect.”
“The Kami? You mean the Kamiyonanayo?” Kaileena asked, and Itaku shook his head, “No.”
He didn’t explain further, eyeing the forest uneasily. Kaileena dismissed their words, determined to enjoy what she could from the day.
The rest of the men quickly began to form a path through the dense vegetation, stomping and cutting down bamboo as needed. Maki idly spun his kusarigama, a gesture she now recognized as a habitual tick, “They say that seeing one can drive a man insane, and that nobody sees the same thing. Perhaps each one looks different, or perhaps they can change their shape.”
Itaku nodded, “We’ll be safer in large numbers, but I again question Master Lenao in sending us here."
Kaileena looked him right in the eye until he turned away, somewhat abashed. Lenao would not have endangered their goal on some fruitless fancy.
“I don’t question him, but I do wish he’d given more details about the artifact.” Golem complained, his features…well, lack thereof, hidden beneath layer after layer of obscuring clothing.
Her father had called it an Ancestor Seed, created by the Totoanatsukami Anima. Exactly what it looked like, her birth father had omitted from his notes. Or perhaps what he’d offered was the extent of his knowledge.
The Kodama, on the other hand, had no mention whatsoever in his notes. There was no history, no depiction, and only a few reported sightings that could easily coincide with sightings of the Kami.
Disappointed, but not deterred, Kaileena found herself finally able to keep pace with Itaku’s devouring strides. She just wished it hadn’t taken travelling halfway across Teikoku and back to be able to do so.
“I sense no significant life nearby. These ‘Kami’ must be hidden well, if they indeed haunt these forests. Or perhaps they only manifest, physically or otherwise, at specific times.” Guardian mused, and Kaileena shivered, already falling behind, “Hey! Wait for me!”
At long last, she was free!
Tengusraczaria was free, and alive. That was her only concern; not what Dur’Artoth intended for Yokai, or this land, or its people. She would amass her hoard, find her glory and adventure! But first, a little revenge.
The Dragon knew of Dur’Artoth’s minions, and where they gathered. A creature of magicka, she could feel the cold, sickly touch of their necromancy. The Dread Hammer had said to follow any order given by Yokai, after all. And Yokai had told her to destroy recklessly; to bring chaos and death to his enemies.
He should have been more specific.
She beat her great wings, roaring, a series of air bladders inside her long, serpentine body allowing her to pass from one current of warm air to another, gradually banking east and down.
The village of Fusestu awaited her, Dur’Artoth’s servants hidden within. Tengu would destroy the town in its entirety just to be thorough, and diffuse any suspicions that Yokai might harbor. That would placate the Dread Hammer; it never hurt to play it safe.
They couldn’t see her yet; she was far too high up. But they would. Dark clouds gathered above her, concentrating and coalescing into a thunderhead by the energy she fed it. The sun eclipsed, casting shadows over the entire village.
She saw humans cower below. They could see her now, for her glorious coat of scales shined like armor, and her spines appeared as lengths of pure light and crackling electricity. The taste of ozone pooled in her mouth, and she began to inhale.
The sky split with bolts of lightning, the earth below shook with thunderclaps, drowning out their screams. Men-at-arms gathered, and their iron throwers sent projectiles that deflected harmlessly against her coat of scales.
Tengusraczaria opened her mouth and exhaled, releasing a gout of plasma which hurled towards the ground, and spilled in all directions from the point of impact, immolating those struck.
The Dragon fell into a sharp descent, her wings folding back, and she slammed into the ground, having to partially coil herself to fit between the hovels and cancel her momentum.
The sky roiled, sending secondary blasts of lightning into the homes, prioritizing the largest, tallest structures like a natural occurrence. The humans scattered.
She slammed her fist down into an armored soldier, crushing him into pulp, and opened her mouth again, breathing death into the nearest and largest building. It crumbled apart, its shutters and roof blown clear. The Dragon shifted her head mid-breath, spreading it to three or four other buildings before the flow abated.
With the rabble dispersing, Tengusraczaria sent her claws into the dirt, searching for a subterranean burrow that led to the cultist hiding grounds. When a sword-length nail punctured the tunnel, the Dragon forced her energy out again in a killing breath, sending death through the tunnel and into wherever it led to.
She didn’t need to hear the screams to know she’d hit her mark, as her breath had the secondary effect of draining the life force of its victims and transferring it back to her.
The influx of strength was far too great to be from rodents and plants.
“All those who resist us shall be destroyed! You dare to hold me captive, Dread Hammer?” Tengusraczaria snarled, knocking over a hovel as she made her way further into the city, until she stopped in her tracks, stunned. A man in purple and blue robes walked towards her, calmly, carrying a two-handed sword, unmindful of the storm raging about him.
“I am Minamoto, Lord of the Central District of Teikoku. For your crimes today, your life is forfeit.” he said coolly, and Tengu went into a fit of mocking laughter.
“Madness is a common thing here as well, I see.” the Dragon chuckled, “Allow me to relieve you of your madness.”
Forcing air into her lungs, she gathered the energy in her body for another lethal strike, but in the blink of an eye the human was upon her, driving his blade against the impenetrable carapace of her scales. Tengusraczaria looked down, in disbelief, at the blade buried halfway to the guard in her chest, barely missing her heart.
She backhanded the human, even a glancing blow with her smallest finger sending him flying, but the bastard went with the hit, mostly uninjured, and even managed to take the sword with him.
The wound released electrically charged blood, cauterizing without permanent damage, and Tengusraczaria scowled at the lowly human. He had wounded her? How? Her coat could turn all manner of weaponry!
“You are confused, creature?” Lord Minamoto said, eyeing her with disdain, “I do not fault you, for your scales as thick as they are lustrous.”
For the moment ignoring the compliment, she watched him clean her silvery blood off his sword, which smoked and crackled as it dried, “This sword bears a powerful enchantment, one that can pierce through the strongest armor. It seems like your scales are indeed included in that condition.”
Tengusraczaria scowled, then began to grin, “Fair enough, mortal. But now that I know this, I will not allow you to get close enough to use it again”.
Tengusraczaria thrust forward her wing talons, striking nothing but the dirt on which he’d stood, but she carried on the momentum, anticipating attack from behind.
There! Lord Minamoto was where she anticipated, slashing where the back of her thigh would have been. He was so fast!
The Dragon swung her tail back, and the human jumped over it, leaping several feet and landing on the small of her back.
“Enchantments.” Minamoto explained, driving the blade into her thigh. Taking flight, the dragon knocked him off and soared upward, electricity gathering in her throat. Tengu circled low, turning while backpedaling with her legs, allowing herself to hover, and released a wave of breath energy.
Minamoto vanished, reappeared several paces to the left, and again, up to the rooftop of the building to the left, covering three floors in one stride and avoiding her attack. He threw the blade overhead, and judging its trajectory, she caught in with her hand, scraping her fingernails slightly.
She roared, ready to fly away and be done with that horrid thing that had blooded her, but then Minamoto somehow appeared in her hands, holding his sword!
“One last contingency; I can teleport myself to my sword at any time, and thus I will always be ready for the next attack.” Lord Minamoto said, slashing directly across the Dragon’s throat. Immediately after his sword, Sasu, breached the softer, violet scales, silvery blood smelling of ozone spilled out from the wound and burned his flesh.
In desperation, the Lord of the Central District leaped backwards before the substance could splatter his chest or face, plummeting. The creature managed a choked gurgle, forcing itself to ascend higher, its snake-like body undulating with its proportionally small limbs. Minamoto landed hard on the rooftop of the building he’d leaped from. Blood filled his mouth, and he spat it out, ruining his layered robes. A bad sign.
It was fleeing…and he could see it was fleeing west. A Dragon?! Where had it come from?
Rising unsteadily, Minamoto couldn’t say, but he had his suspicions…
He sat up, having sustained injuries in the field before and developed a high tolerance for pain. It was a shame most of his men had fled, but at least some had overseen the evacuation of the citizens. Some of them had honored their stations, and the rest would be harshly disciplined.
Minamoto slid down the railing along the side of the building, finding himself back on the ground level. The fires were spreading quickly, but with the creature gone and its heralding storm once again clear skies, some of the citizens were sending for buckets of water. Sadly, he had no enchantment that could assist them further.
“My Lord? My Lord, are you alright?!” a soldier gasped, his eyes still flitting back to the now-empty sky.
“Yes, I will be fine.” Lord Minamoto replied, setting a hand on his shoulder to steady him, “Inform my courier to send word to the other lords. I wish to arrange a meeting.”