The Path in the Shadow, Book 1 of the Enchanter's Cycle

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Chapter 11

“It seems I must thank you again, Jhihro.” Shirudo said wearily, his back against a wall as his brethren cleared the next floor of enemies.

Without the light-orbs to scatter their vampyric attackers, the Te Fukushu would have long ago been overwhelmed.

The Grand Alchemist smiled pleasantly, “The secret was white phosphorous; a dose small enough to not be explosive. I burned my hands several times concentrating and storing it. But enough of this. Let us ensure our survival before applying gratitude. The excitement is making me positively giddy.”

Twisting the handle on his multi-pronged spear, Jhihro launched three needles into a half-vampyre, weighted with small glass cylinders. On impact the spearheads injected the fluid inside into the creature, burning a hole in its chest.

When it remained standing, albeit unsteadily, Jhihro sighed, and thrust again, finishing the poor thing. He quickly set to replacing his missing spearheads, dozens lining his bandoleer.

Thanks to the narrowness of the stairwell, the fighting was limited to immediately in front of them and from above. The half-vampyres scaled the walls and ceiling like insects, but struck without much cohesion. And yet every twenty count he heard one of his hunters scream and die as they were dragged to their deaths.

Running low on arrows, Shirudo drew his shield and tanto. A half-vampyre fell from the ceiling, but was impaled mid-air by Aika’s spear. She hissed, strained, as she used the creature’s downward momentum to hurl it aside, snapping off a few spearheads that did their grisly work, reducing it to ash.

“Press on!” he commanded, and the Te Fukushu redoubled their efforts, forcing the enemy further and further down the tower.

A vampyre broke through the line, and Shirudo interposed himself between it and Aika, jamming his tanto into its skull. Giving the weapon a twist, he instinctively sidestepped, and the next one in line was run through by Aika. Te Fukushu bodies pressed together in a confused jumble, separating as their attackers were repelled. He sported more wounds than he had before.

The stairs finally came to an end, and Shirudo ordered three orbs detonated. He saw skin blacken, bones crack and splinter from the heat.

“I come for you, Matriarch!” Koukatsuna roared, hacking his way forward. He seemed a mere blur of motion, covered in blood from head to waist and very much enjoying himself.

Shirudo saw an opening as two hybrids attempted to flank a spearman, and he thrust his tanto, bloodying the shoulder of the left attacker and allowing his ally time to drive off the other one. The struck hybrid disappeared under a frenzy of thrusting spears.

“Faster! We must reach the inner sanctum quickly!”

“My brother was less than generous in response to your offer.” Surthath noted coolly at his son’s return, to which the Dread Hammer smiled, “All went as I expected, though not necessarily how I hoped.”

“None of the other Old Ones will join you either; they see you for what you are. A usurper. Did you think they missed the fact you're calling yourself the ′One True God’?”

“How very perceptive.” Dur’Artoth purred, eyeing the pieces on the board, a few of which had fallen or even added themselves to the game, “I’ve grown weary; seeking to unmake the Old Ones’ mistakes. It’s been so tiresome, and no reward has been forthcoming, from you or any of the others. In fact, most cower behind you and Anima, content to watch while Argosaxx’s remains gestate to populate the Veil. I come to wonder if Argosaxx even was the reason things went so very, very wrong in those days...”

Dur’Artoth laughed, idly plucking up a black piece that symbolized a priestess, “...or if it’s been you all along. A omnipotent idiot, playing at a game that benefits only you. I can’t suffer foolishness, Brother, or disloyalty. Not ever. This one, for example; even serving me her hubris infects all around her. Failure, like cancer, must be eradicated, or it will spread. If you had learned the truth of this, your own efforts might not have been so wasted. But then…yours was never to rule, only to sit on the sidelines. Your time is ending, Brother, and my time has nearly come.”

Uejini, Matriarch of the Skraul, felt a disturbance among her kin. The chattel could hear the battle above, and she could smell their fear. Pathetic

My sentiments exactly, little one.” a voice whispered in her mind, as a presence of such magnitude filled the air about her, coating her body in hoarfrost smelling of rot.

“Master!” she cried, kneeling immediately out of deference, though God Death was not physically there.

You have failed me, Uejini.” he snapped, “You are no longer useful.

Her black blood froze in her veins; to be unworthy was a commonality among all servants of the One True God, but to be useless was to perish. “My lord, I-”

I have seen your kind time and time again. Wasting your resources because you fail to realize that every loss must be carefully weighed against the benefits of the end result. What force will you have for the invasion of Aurora now that you have carelessly discarded all but your inner guard? Elerath was of like-mind; a cowardly being who begged for mercy before his end! Will you beg, I wonder?” The Dread Hammer interrupted, “My favor be gone from you, worm. The gathering shall occur without you. Fail and fall to your little rebellion, or endure to fall when my chosen cleanse the Veil of all life.

The presence faded, and the Matriarch send forth her thousand-dagger swarm, annihilating several of the chattel at her side.

“I am Uejini, Matriarch of the Skraul! I won’t let you ignore me!” She screamed, her anger manifesting as a dense cloud of roiling shadows. Useless?! She’d created an army in his name, had conquered this world in spite of being offered the least of any member of the Royal Line!

She would not be left behind...

“It’s cold here.” Kaileena whispered, shivering under the thin blankets and her kimono.

“You wouldn’t have lasted long in your travel north to the Renmei Kisai if you find this weather discouraging.” Itaku replied, distant. He eyes scanned the forest around them, alert for threats.

He seeks what he cannot see.” Guardian noted, “Perhaps he wants these Kami to appear, to at least relieve the tenseness of waiting for them.

“I hope not.” Kaileena replied, and all the Karyudo Kisai eyed her warily. The men hadn’t taken kindly to her, and talking to an intangible being they knew to be there mustn’t be helping her case with them. She tried not to but she forgot from time to time; maintaining a conversation by thinking was harder than it sounded.

“Oh, don’t let them bother you.” Golem said, “They’re like that to anyone who isn’t them. I understand that Xenophobia is at least somewhat applicable to all humans, especially those within an insular community.”

“Odd thing to say for not being alive.” Maki noted, dryly, poignantly not looking at either of them. A very rude thing to do.

“I never said I was alive. But I can see things nonetheless.” the construct replied, his words suggesting sarcasm where his monotone voice didn’t.

“Enough of this. Rest, all of you. I will take the first watch.” Itaku snapped, and that was all Kaileena needed to fall over, using her cloak as a bedroll. She curled tightly to preserve body heat, the tip of her tail nearly touching her chin.

I cannot wait until we get to see Moonshadow.” she whispered, and a peculiar sensation emerged from Guardian.

…Yes, little fox. I know."

It was time.

Yokai began the new ritual, gathering what strength he could. He felt weak; the summoning had drained him, as the botched one had before it. He hadn’t eaten well in months, and hadn’t slept much for as long as he could remember. He felt drawn, and tired.

Thankfully, this wouldn’t take strength, but determination, and no small tolerance to pain. The runes, concentrated in the summoning chamber but placed strategically throughout the entire tower and over two bowshots of land surrounding it, began to activate, emitting a pale light.

In a small, private part of himself that he seldom acknowledged, Yokai knew he was afraid. He didn’t want to die. But he didn’t want to fail even more, and that steadied his hands, brought confidence to his swift, mystic passes and the arcane phrases spilling from his lips.

He knew, he’d always known, that his life’s work would kill him. That no man could challenge the powers that be and escape unscathed. But he knew in his heart that he would chose to be dead and free rather than alive and in chains. At least, this way, he would know for sure he would succeed.

He would succeed, at any cost.

As he completed the initial phase of perhaps the grandest enchantment ever wrought by a mortal man, he shivered, as the light became blinding, as all the warmth bled from his emaciated body. He cried out, in pain, as the air burned like fire, though his breath frosted.

The room went dark, though the runes remained, trailing pinpricks of pure light. From those points, lines emerged, intersecting them, forming a net that expanded outward from the summoning chamber and engulfed the entire tower.

Totoanatsukami, he could feel the gathering energy in the air! Like a beacon, the tower itself drew in ley-lines of tectonic force churning beneath the world’s crust, connecting to them. Feeding energy through them.

In a few moments, the connection expanded to encompass the West District, then Teikoku itself. Still, ever faster, gaining in strength exponentially, Yokai felt a profound connection to all things in Aurora.

No! Still more! So much more!

He head throbbed with the sheer depth of sensation he experienced; his connection to his own body waned. What kept him up, Yokai couldn’t say, as his mind frayed apart amid all that was, only to be drawn back together by the threads of his spell, again and again. He cried out, though he heard nothing, felt nothing but numbness and motion and light and heat and color. He felt the nuclei in his cells as they burst apart, felt the space between his atoms expand and contract violently. He felt his bones liquefy, his flesh bubble and warp. What was matter, became energy, then matter, then energy, winking in and out of the tangible spectrum.

Beyond pain, Yokai pushed himself through the final stage of his transformation, and became as pure energy, to spread throughout all creation. Slowly, so slowly, he drew back, taking the collected power of the Eternal Return through the ley-lines, his arcane net, back to Aurora, back to Teikoku, back to the West District. Back to his tower. Back to his body.

Losing the connection, Yokai gasped for air he couldn’t breathe. He could “see” his surroundings; the walls of the tower, the runes which didn’t dissipate but instead took on a regular, faint glow, and then his hand, or what served him as a hand.

“That won’t do.” he said, willing his hand to appear as it had. And so it did.

“And the rest, too.” he added, feeling his face, his hair, the points of his ears. He was completely naked, so he thought of his robes, reconsidered, and thought of the clean ones in his study. And so he was no longer naked.

“It was right there, all along.” he said, at a loss, “All this time. And we didn’t see.”

He shook his head, “How lonely it feels now, being only me. I might have remained as I was, had I not needed this power.”

His thoughts immediately drifted to Tengu, perhaps his first and only friend, and he saw a representation of her, mid-flight, in the skies bordering the Central and North Districts. She hissed, sensing she was being watched, but, by the way her muscles tensed, she didn’t know who. She was wounded. That upset him greatly. He wished her wounds to be gone, and they were.

The Dragon lost altitude in her surprise, but she recovered quickly, and how she roared, sensing, knowing his new power, “Yes! Let them come. I will burn their flesh to ash.”

After a moment of puzzlement, Yokai understood. She referred to the Renmei Keiji; agents of a great darkness, who wished to destroy the lands he would re-create in his image. No

He blinked, considered what else he might be unaware of, and concentrated his will into an immensely powerful divination that gleaned essential truths from the universe.

“I see…” Yokai said under his breath. His efforts and intentions had been predicted, by both the agents of the darkness and by the agents of the Hitorigami. Even then, assassins sought out a means to stop him. Their pitiful band, far to the east, fell under the direct focus of his all-piercing gaze, and Yokai looked deeply, studying and finding one very unlike the others.

“Kaileena Kazeatari…what are you in this twisted game we play?” he wondered, seeing a kindred spirit hidden in the flesh of an unfamiliar species. She too was an enchanter, and she too wished to be free.

But her role was unclear, for not even he could see the future. Yet. No need for haste. He had all the time he needed to continue, and to prepare for the inevitable.

“It has only begun; more and more I separate from the human condition. It will take time to understand, but I will. And then I will be unstoppable. I will become a God!” he exclaimed.

Yokai willed himself to the grounds outside the tower, his palace.

“A god must have followers.” he decided, digging his hands into the ground. He pulled out two lumps of clay, and let them fall halfway to the ground, suspended by telekinesis.

Live.” he said, both a request and a command, and the two lumps began to explosively expand, separate, and re-expand, multiplying exponentially. Each segment formed an identical humanoid outline. Seventy men; seventy soldiers, took shape, featureless, each digging into the same soil to pull free blades of iron, the ore collected and shaped by the mere expression of his conscious thought.

He willed another seventy into being, and then another. And then another.

Homunculi…” Yokai asked, “Who do you serve?”

“God!” they replied in unison, bowing lowly. Yokai smiled; already he had the power to crush half of the Renmei Kisai combined. With Tengu as his general, he would amass the greatest army this world has ever seen! One slavishly loyal to him, and then, to whoever he chose to succeed him. Perhaps Kaileena, if he could reach her and convince him of his cause.

Let his enemies come; he would be ready. There was far more to being a god than what he’d currently demonstrated. So much more...

She was awake, for some reason. Kaileena blinked, confused, then alarmed. Something felt wrong.

I sense it too, child. Get up.” Guardian projected, and opening her eyes, she found the fire to be cooled and blackened ash. Had the agents doused it? They were scattered about, all lying down. No one was at watch. There was a thick coat of fog covering everything, clinging like condensation; fog…wait...

She started to rise, but a hand pushed her back down and clamped over her mouth.

“Shhhh…” Maki whispered, deathly silent, removing his hand and pointing past her to the bushes. Straining her eyes, Kaileena saw nothing. What was…there!

She had to squint, but the shadows beyond seemed to be moving, ever so slightly. All around them, the shadows were moving, while everyone was completely still.

I know they’re there, but I cannot feel them.” Guardian whispered, “It is as if they're blocking my telepathy.

Whatever it was, it knew they were there! Forcing her head back, she locked eyes with Maki, and he replied only with a calm expression. The message was clear. All the other agents were likely equally alert, and poised for battle.

“Kami!” Maki cried, his kusarigama in either hand. Kaileena had the presence of mind to draw her staff as she stumbled to her feet.

“Come, Guardian!” she cried, and the familiar spirit took shape behind her, his fanged blade Verlangen materializing in her hand.

“I am here, little fox.” he replied.

Ethereal lights appeared all around them, like that of the moon but rippling like water. They took on the shapes of wolves, carrion birds, reptiles, and animals she’d never even heard of. They lunged at the Karyudo Kisai, roaring, hissing, or making horrible gurgling noises that defied further description.

Men swung their steel, but where it struck, it passed harmlessly as if the Kami were indeed but light and fog. Their fangs and claws, however, were quite solid, and agents began to die. Guardian roared, and about his body flared a light of his own, dark azure mingling with streamers of shadow. The Kami balked, and disappeared into the trees.

“That won’t scatter them for long. Quickly, relight the fire!” He growled, and Itaku repeated the order. Golem took place behind her…well, behind Guardian, a pair of katanas in his clay hands.

“These creatures remind me of Turgon.” Guardian noted, and the same thought had occurred to her. In any case, they were creatures not of this world.

“Their teeth and claws are physical; likely these are the points they use to physically manifest. Aim for them!” Guardian advised, to which a few nodded uncertainly.

Soon enough, the Kami charged from their clouds of fog. Guardian’s wings slammed into a bear apparition, the points of his talons splintering its only physical parts; the fangs, and then, to her amazement, the bear just ceased to be there.

The other creatures looked back in horror to the space their fellow had occupied, and were thrown in to a frenzy, attacking with renewed vigor.

Itaku slammed the pommel of his katana into the head of an ethereal serpent, breaking its fangs, then threw the blade overhead into a giant bat savaging one of his men.

Golem swung his katanas at his foes; a pair of massive lizard-creatures that separated him from her, cursing foully. In thanks perhaps to the claylike material that composed his body, the construct was able to increase and decrease the length of his arms, giving him a wider field of attack than the Kami might anticipate, delivering vicious blows to the thick plates on their heads where he wouldn’t have been able otherwise.

“You’re making me work for it, hmm?” he asked, his tone bereft of the sarcasm his words implied.

Kaileena swung her twin-sword in an upward-diagonal stroke, cutting through the hooked beak of a massive bird, defeating it. An insect-like appendage swiped her arm, drawing blood, and Kaileena turned in order to ward herself from further attack with Guardian’s wings.

The creature, something between a millipede and a horse, struck with six separate arms and a pair of feelers, all of which were deflected by Guardian’s wings and fists, allowing her time to identify the weak spot.

Its mandibles looked real enough

Kaileena thrust her sword, and the Kami’s six arms closed around it, attempting to wrench the weapon from her grip. But this item was fused to her by magicka; her grip was unbreakable.

Tearing it free, Guardian jabbed it with his talons, splitting one of the mandibles, and the thing recoiled as if in pain. Kaileena thrust the blade again, sliced off the other, and the foe vanished instantly. Three more of the creatures emerged from the forest to replace it.

“Have they no end?!” she gasped, and Golem drove in behind her, splitting the skull of a reptilian creature, “No. It seems not.”

He was so close, so close! There was something ahead, something strange…

Ryū knew he’d left the Prime behind leagues ago when he found the forest of stick-trees. So what was this feeling?

He sensed motion behind him, and sidestepped something bright blue. The creature lashed at him, and falling into a roll, he turned while drawing Hyosho and Kaminari. His attacker had four legs, was slim, and lithe, with a small rounded head and curving teeth. Composed of some manner of ethereal energy, it might have been beautiful, but he was well acquainted with the murderous glare it gave him, circling with the confidence of a practiced predator.

“So be it.” he whispered, willing some of his life energy into his blades; Hyosho freezing the air into vapor, currents of electricity emerging through Kaminari. The creature pounced, and Ryū cut at its belly in a feint while falling back.

Its fangs sank into his shoulder, and Ryū cut into its body…and kept cutting through with no resistance, as if it were made of air.

“Damn you.” he hissed, bringing his other blade between its teeth, pulling and wrenching them out of his wound. Ryū backhanded the creature with Kaminari in a reverse grip as it came in a second time, splitting its teeth. Then suddenly he was alone.

Ryū turned, hissed, and bolted towards the scent; the child, having abruptly changed direction but thankfully passed by him a second time. His twin wakizashi brightened the forest, playing off blue lights in the distance. Another creature assaulted him, and another, and soon he was forced to backpedal, flourishing his deadly blades to keep them at bay.

One drove ahead of the others; something with curled horns and a slender equine head. Ryū drove his foot under it, and flipped it belly up while cutting into its physical skeleton, splintering two ribs and cracking a third. As the other beasts swarmed him, Kaminari spat a stream of lightning, blasting through three in a row, burning and shattering their physical areas; horns, teeth, and a plated tail piece, respectively.

Now freed, Hyosho froze the air into vapor, dew, and finally, ice crystals, that attached to anything tangible. With a mental command, the affected areas cracked apart and splintered.

Ryū pushed through the overgrowth, and found the clear path the natives had created, allowing him an unobstructed view to what lay beyond. He saw humans battling with a horde of the strange creatures, fighting with blade and enchantment. Near the peak of their group, there was the child with…with

“A Kamiyonanayo.” he gasped, involuntarily stumbling, “A real…Kamiyonanayo.”

It was just as the legends described; a colossal being with membranous wings and a plated head. It didn’t have legs, but was instead fused to the child from the waist down by a shadowy umbilicus! The humans were close to being overwhelmed, and that forced him to keep moving. He had to save the child!

Commander Itaku brought Mujihi down, splitting the thick vertebrate of an armored hound-like Kami, immediately forced to appraise the next threat as many crawled, loped, or slithered his way. Activating his katana’s enchantment, he charged with a burst of blinding speed, his steel striking down three Kami in rapid succession, the third dead before the other two had even dispersed.

The burst faded, and Itaku held fast the jaws of a dire wolf, deeply cutting his hands in the process, sawing his blade up and down in spite of the pain. Its teeth broke apart, and it vanished.

He cut, parried, counterattacked, and reactivated the enchantment, and it felt like the world was moving so slowly he’d frozen time itself. Steel hung suspended, blood droplets froze, or fell like snowflakes.

The creature that emerged from Kaileena’s lamp didn’t appear slowed, however, looking at him knowingly, “A temporal distortion. I was not aware humans could create such enchantments unaided.”

Itaku scowled, “What do you know of our people, Kamiyonanayo?”

The creature seemed more confused than insulted by his taunt, “I am not a Kamiyonanayo. Not anymore. I do not deserve the moniker.”

There was shame in that response, and it frazzled him. It was becoming difficult to hate these creatures he found himself with. Were they making him soft?

He cut an X-shape with two slices, splitting a Kami skull that looked something like a death-mask, and that reminded him; after Yokai was dealt with, he-

As the burst of speed dissipated, the enchantment wearing off a second time, Itaku saw another entering the fray. He’d almost mistaken it for one of his men, for it wore a black cloak, but he clearly saw the dulled red skin of its arms. This was the creature from Maki’s report!

It flew into a Kami, cutting off its fangs. Flames of Kagutsuchi, it was fast! It was like a living shadow, darting from one foe to the other, blurring with powerful strides.

Kaileena willed a fragment of her life energy to consume itself, powering a spell of Blood Magicka that Guardian cast through her.

Arcane syllables forced themselves out through her lips, emitting a wave of telekinesis in all directions. Destroying any such tethers it connected with, Kami were banished by the dozens, obliterating the nearest groups and sending the furthest ones fleeing. Kaileena slumped over, and Guardian vanished, drawn back to the lamp. These took a good deal from her.

The Karyudo Kisai reorganized, circling around a cloaked, masked figure that turned to face her.

“Who are you?” Commander Itaku demanded, his own weapon still drawn. He reached up to his mask, and his skin was red, his nails long and black. When he removed it, Kaileena gasped, staring with disbelief.

He was much like the vision she’d conjured during her first few sessions of mating in Fusestu; a face not unlike her own, thicker, perhaps, with a longer snout and larger horn nubs, some of them curling. A wide, rippling chest. A mouthful of pointed teeth. Nimble but firm hands.

His mane of feathers were uneven, darker, frayed in places. It gave him a dirty, wild look, as did his fingernails. His large eyes, red with a thin, black slit, bored into her, containing their own light, it seemed. He wasn’t particularly large, but he still towered over her. She wasn’t sure what to think of him.

“What is your name?” Kaileena asked, and he blinked at her words, confused.

“I Ryū.” he finally replied in broken Nihongo, “Silkrit. I seek you”. What?

“I don’t understand.” she replied, and he held her hand, gently. “You, one I seek. And Kamiyonanayo.” he said, hissing as he strained to find the words, “You save us.”

He squeezed her hand, and bowed deeply. She wasn’t sure what was happening, and nothing came to mind to say to him or his strange proclamation. Save them? Who? She couldn’t even save herself on her own!

“You are Silkrit, like me?” Kaileena asked, “You come from Moonshadow?”

“No. You lead me hidden power.” Ryū replied, and some of what he said was apparent.

“You seek the Eternal Return, as does Yokai!” Kaileena realized, Itaku nodding, having come to the same conclusion. She bowed to him, “I am Kaileena Kazeatari, and I will help you find that power if it is to save our people.”

“Thank, Kaileena.” He replied, bowing a second time.

“Our little band grows. What a night!” Golem said, his tone still utterly monotone, and seeing his clay skin and lack of features, Ryū raised a brow, or the equivalent thereof.

“I think we’ve had quite enough excitement.” Commander Itaku muttered dryly, “Let us be on our way, and find whatever you father wished us to”.

The fighting became less organized near the base of the tower.

Gripping the shoulder of a red-skinned hybrid, he drove the point of his tanto into its back and out between its ribs, the treated iron trailing blood in its wake.

Adrenaline dulled the pain as he took a raking claw to his right arm and torso, and he fought on. Time slowed, and everything felt heavy, each moment blending with the next.

Silvery-white light rose with the ignition of another sun-orb, and fell with its extinguishing, revealing a massive chamber they pressed the horde into. Suddenly, the attacks stopped, the hybrids retreated, and he found in a panic that he couldn’t move a muscle. The advance ground to an instant halt.

Shirudo could smell Skraul, and burning meat. And he couldn’t move!

The matriarch stepped from the darkness, smiling, “Well done! All of you, well done! You’ve proven yourselves able fighters. Possessed of far more potential than the slaves of Baleblood, which you’ve met on your way down here. I assure you, there is no shame in falling prey to a spell collectively cast by half my retinue.”

“Bitch!” Koukatsuna growled, fighting against the paralysis, his blades twitching ever so slightly.

“Mistress Uejini? Shall we take them away?” another female Skraul asked, her face concealed under a thick cloak. Her smile widened, “No, my dear. I like them right where they are. Have them bound. We will take them all with us after the Eternal Return runs its course, either by our own kin or a mortal champion. Their numbers will add to our own. But you, Leader of the Te Fukushu, I would like to play with for a while…”

Vala tensed, hand on the hilt of Toshisha, her Blood-Forged Blade, which gathered its power.

The Silkrit General looked at her in bewilderment, and she silently cursed. True enough, she was unusual enough among the Skraul, with her blue eyes, dusky skin, and extended lower canines like tusks; the features of a particularly fair Orc, but perhaps he also saw something in her expression that betrayed her intentions.

Damn it all, she needed the opportune moment, and with his thoughts being read by the Matriarch it was too great a risk to wait!

She activated her weapon, merely a length of bone in its inert state, and an intense cold filled the room.

“Wha-” Uejini gasped, just as Toshisha extended into a length of bladed disks not unlike a spinal column, and thrust into her from behind, digging into her shoulder.

Her retinue might have cast the field of paralysis, but she knew Uejini well enough to know she wouldn’t trust anyone but herself with its upkeep.

At once, the room exploded into chaos, the paralytic effect holding the slaves defeated as Vala’s attack ruined her enemy’s concentration.

Spinning Toshisha, the segments of the whip-blade formed a protective barrier, as Hatsuru, Uejini’s thousand daggers, hurled towards her, she nearly fell to her knees as their many impacts severely weakened the integrity of her weapon.

Knowing she wouldn’t withstand another barrage, Vala spun Toshisha in a tight horizontal arc, and bypassed the Matriarch’s protective sheath of shadows to slash across her arm, drawing black blood which fed into the blade, nourishing it.

“Kill her!” Uejini screamed. The freed Te Fukushu, still armed, activated orbs of light that blistered her exposed face. She winced, but coiled her whip like a spring and snapped it forward, forcing Uejini to sidestep to avoid being gored by the dagger-length tip of her weapon.

Just as Vala wanted her to

She spun in a broad flourish, and struck Uejini in the side, puncturing deeply.

“You were spared, in spite of your blasphemy, and you throw that life away for their sakes?” the Matriarch hissed.

“For them? No, I do this for myself, and for Sachio, and for Tenri!” she replied bitterly, hoarfrost and then ice coasting her armor and forming thick plates, “I’d rather die and take you all with me than see Father have his way in this.”

Koukatsuna slammed the butt of his long sword into the nose of a male Skraul, kicked at its kneecap, and cut its throat in a reverse grip.

Waru and Saku thrust along two lines of vampyres, the bladedancer’s body twisting and undulating to strike at differing and awkward angles; underarm, down the clavicle, behind the kneecaps, even while he was still facing his prey head on, sidestepping, parrying, or even tripping the enemy up with his tail as the need arose.

A demonic looking female hybrid with lengths sprouting from her spine attempted to flank him, but Koukatsuna fell backwards into a crabwalk position, ducking under the crude impaling motion of its slim-blade and throwing the enemy off balance.

Even with its freakish agility, Koukatsuna out-maneuvered it with a spinning motion with his left leg and a swift kick with his right. Its guard broken, the hybrid tried to backpedal, but he was already upon it, his barbed long swords thrown overhand to embed into its sternum.

Sensing his peril, he somersaulted forward, ending in a roll in which he retrieved his weapons, spun around, and had the air blown from his lungs as an armored Skraul sent him sprawling with a wicked mace, the awkwardness of the angle of the thrust the only reason he wasn’t spitting up pulverized organs.

Before Koukatsuna could find his feet, a plated boot slammed into his abdomen, interrupting his intake of breath, and he looked up at his adversary, armed with mace and sword, noting very distinctively the quality of its darksteel mail. There was no emblem on its chest…so he wasn’t a Prime. A low ranking Broodlord, perhaps?

“What is the matter?” the vampyre hissed, “Have you looked upon your better?”

The bladedancer jabbed at the Skraul at ankle level, but by the time the blades were intersecting the vampyre was already two paces away.

Leaping onto his feet, Koukatsuna lunged at the vampyre, but turned away at the last moment, inviting an attack of its own. The Broodlord, overconfident in its superior speed and reflexes, took the bait, and slammed into him, running him through the underbelly.

“Got you!” Koukatsuna wheezed, ignoring the pain, driving both his blades back and into the Skraul’s chest, scraping its heart. The vampyre snarled, threw him overhead, slamming him into two of his fellow Te Fukushu hunters, but not even the worry of his bowels flowing out of the hole the enemy had made wiped the smile from his face.

Rising unsteadily, Koukatsuna held the hole in his stomach closed, uncorking a vial of Vitrium and drinking about a third of the vile substance, wincing at the rusty tang. The wound in his belly fused itself shut, and he watched smugly as the Skraul collapsed.

“Not so confident now, are you?” he chuckled, enjoying the rage etched on its face, tinged with a hint of fear, “I knew you were too fast for me to hit on my own so I took a gamble you wanted this fight to end slowly so you could feed off me. I had to get you in a position where I could hit you, so I had to let you hit me first, to be wholly devoted to the attack and not your own defense. If you’d opted to end the fight quick and run me through the heart, my plan would have failed, so thank you. Truly.”

“...Too damned prideful. Too damned stupid to be prideful.” he mused, pleased immensely by the fact that he’d just moved up from Arbiter Slayer to Broodlord Slayer, as it crumbled apart into ash. All he needed was a Prime and a matriarch to complete the set.

Cutting through a lines of chattel, two male, one female, that were menacing three cornered hunters, he spun to parry a weapon from a hybrid and counter with a riposte, impaling it a finger’s length through the neck, then twisting the blade to open its throat. He never toyed with his prey, because the roles could easily be turned, as he was about to demonstrate to the shadow-shrouded bitch who dared to leave her back exposed to him…

Freeze, and grow brittle!” Vala hissed, forcing the latent thermal energy of the chamber into a ball around the Matriarch, super-cooling her body to absolute zero. Uejini laughed, unaffected, allowing the sheath of shadows to disperse from her face, “You think that would stop me? I am a chosen of Dur’Artoth, the most holy of gods! You are outmatched.”

“I’m not the only one who wants you dead, remember…” Vala replied smugly, and the Matriarch turned in time to see the twin blades of the Silkrit fugitive known as Koukatsuna gouge her face. She hissed in pain, hiding her ruined features beneath the sheathe of shadows, and the Silkrit flew into a rage, hacking furiously at her defenses.

Vala struck as well, coiling Toshisha for an impaling strike. Their weapons, Blood-Forged, penetrated her defenses, and into the flesh beneath them. Ice crystals coated her armor, her skin, her blood vessels shrinking until they ruptured.

“Heretic.” Uejini growled, “Betrayer! So be it!”

Darkness surged, boiled from her body, and as she fell inert, succumbing to her wounds, her reflection manifested in the form of an incorporeal wraith.

“Death has no meaning to a follower of the One True God!” Uejini hissed, her teeth extended to finger-length, her infinite daggers dancing around her like marionettes. A cloud of putrescence expanded outward, killing Dozens of Silkrit in seconds.

She’d seen such a spell once before; had channeled it and scoured the life from an entire planet. Surthath keep them, for Uejini couldn’t begin to rival the one who’d cast the spell through her!

Vala struck with her whip, but it passed harmlessly though her as if she were nothing but air. Emitting another wave of the freezing vapor at her opponent, Vala was again frustrated by failure.

As her mutated body was peppered with darksteel daggers, Vala saw the Silkrit fumbling with something in his pack…

“Fascinating.” Jhihro mused as he held the low-ranking Skraul pinned. He’d beaten the black-skinned wretch with the butt of his spear to the point where its fangs had broken off, and after this point the vampyre stopped struggling. It was as if that specific event, and not the pain accompanying it, had stolen the creature’s very will to live. Perhaps it was the fact that it could no longer feed, could no longer properly imbibe Vitrium, and the accompanying knowledge of eventual starvation, that broke its will.

A useful thing to keep in mind.

“Thank you for allowing me this observation.” he said, jamming the heads of his pronged spear into its chest, pumping the fluid replicating sunlight into its heart. Per the usual reaction, the vampyre’s skin began to flake off, revealing the burning meat within, and over the course of a few moments nothing remained of his enemy but a biped-shaped pile of ash.

“Field work was never my forte…but I must confess I am greatly enjoying myself.” Jhihro said, turning to Aika, who at this point was demonstrating the many applications of his prototype spear. Being far more agile than he was, she was tangled within a mass of enemies but never quite overwhelmed, using spearhead, shaft, elbow, knee, fist, and tail interchangeably.

She didn’t have the base strength of Koukatsuna, or the blinding speed of Ryū, but the female seemed possessed of such divine application of technique, such imagination in her deceptive, ruthless strikes and counters, that most fell to her regardless.

Like her peers, Aika made death beautiful...

If Aika were aware of his scrutiny, she didn’t show it, cutting through a red-skinned Silkrit, and he found his thoughts shifting from the female to their half-blooded brethren. Ryū had never allowed him extensive research into the vampyric transformation and its effects on a Silkrit, offering little that wasn’t already common knowledge. He wouldn’t even consent to a little experimentation!

How selfish!

The thought put him in a foul mood, and fueled a wicked thrust into a vampyre’s eyes. He knew that head trauma wasn’t necessarily lethal, and twisted the handle to his satisfaction, ensuring success.

Three hunters flanked an armored Skraul, and the first was shredded by its clawed gauntlets. The second reacted without fear, trying to find the right combination of momentum and caution, and was swept aside by his enemy’s superior speed and reflexes, torn apart by slavering hybrids.

As the vampyre finished off the third, Jhihro waited until its jaws clamped down on the unfortunate hunter’s throat, and then launched the remaining tips of his spear into his ally’s back. While the Skraul would have sensed the danger to itself, it was feeding on rich blood, saturated with fear and wound-shock, and also feeding on the light orb fluid indirectly.

Neither survived, but the hunter’s sacrifice killed a high ranking vampyre.

The enemy looked at him, or tried to, at least, before collapsing into a heap, burning from the inside out.

And he laughed, surrounded by new insight in his efforts towards Skraul extinction and Silkrit supremacy.

Koukatsuna detonated the light-orb, squinting. There was a deafening shriek, and the bladedancer saw the living darkness turn to face him, more pained than menacing.

“You lowly creature, what are you to me?!” it hissed, and he smiled in return, unafraid of death, “I am Koukatsuna the Undefeated, or I shall be once more when I destroy you.”

He lit another orb, and as the fluid inside began to burn, he tossed it into the wraith, where it came to life inside her chest cavity. As the matriarch cried out, he noticed that her physical body hadn’t turned to ash yet. It gave him an idea.

“Jhihro! A hand?!” he yelled, and the fellow offered his spear.

“Just die already.” he hissed, and slammed the spearhead down into the prone body.

The spirit shrieked with such intensity that he lost the ability to hear, and Koukatsuna laughed through the pain.

“Ryu taught me how spells work, especially the transformative kinds your people favor. You stayed awfully close to the body you supposedly abandoned. It occurred to me that its magicka might still draw from your physical shell. Looks like I was right. What would happen if it were destroyed, I wonder?” he asked, twisting the spearheads in the Matriarch’s heart.

She cried out, in pain, and began to dissolve into foul streamers of smoke.

“I am the chosen of the Dread Hammer! I cannot die! I cann-” Her body broke apart, disintegrating, and her spectral form winked out of existence.

“I am Koukatsuna, the undefeated. The immovable object and the irresistible force we were, destined to battle. And one was meant to die. I’m relieved it was you.” he mused, walking over to the prone female that had betrayed her allies.

Covered in puncture wounds, several of them deep enough to reveal bone, she looked up at him with those unusual blue eyes, unfocused from pain and wound-shock .

“You aren’t one of them, but that doesn’t make you one of us. What do you want?” he asked, ignoring the battle around him.

She groaned, her wounds regenerating, knitting themselves shut. Not quickly enough; she’d lost a great deal of blood. It formed a puddle beneath her. He doubted she could even move. Taking a deep breath, she blinked, slowly, “Now? I don’t know. I wanted the Matriarch dead, and I’d sought again to defect to Surthath, the great enemy. I guess that makes us allies.”

Koukatsuna eyed the bottle of Vitrium hanging from his belt. Still a little left...

The forest began to thin, and Kaileena dared hope they’d reached its outskirts. The Karyudo Kisai didn’t express their dispositions openly, but the mood was evident in their newly confident strides.

“I must remain a while.” Ryū muttered, not quite clearing through to the sunlight. Kaileena nodded, handing him a pouch she wore alongside her pack, “To keep the scent.”

He nodded, turning back and disappearing into the overgrowth. He had, with difficulty, explained his “condition” to her and Itaku, and of the horrible war waging on the Silkrit home world.

Much has occurred since my sundering.” Guardian projected, “Much, indeed.

The Skraul seemed a distant threat, but if they had an allegiance with either Yokai or the Renmei Keiji Cult…

“Events continue to spiral outside of my ability to understand. It’s an unfamiliar feeling.” Itaku said idly as they walked through the overgrowth.

“Things were never exactly normal for me, but yes, they really seem to be getting out of hand lately.” Kaileena agreed, looking back to the clearing, “I hope he’ll be alright on his own.”

“From what he describes, there are far worse than the Kami where he hails from. In any case, he may prove a valuable asset in our task.” Itaku said, and Kaileena looked to him with a frown, “And what are we to you to be labeled as assets? That seems callous.”

“No more than a decade ago I would have killed both of you on sight, as well as Golem, and probably destroyed the lamp, too. I think you should be very grateful for your current positions and tolerances.” he replied dryly.

Am I to expect that all your conversations will be like this?” Guardian asked, and Kaileena involuntarily burst into laughter, the first time in a while, which got her an almost accusatory stare from the others.

I guess so. And there is reason to celebrate; we get this trinket, stop Yokai, Ryū gets half the Eternal Return to save the Silkrit, and you get the rest to have a body again. If its half of what they say, I’m sure it’s a possibility.” Kaileena replied jovially, telepathically this time, and Guardian seemed genuinely taken aback.

And what of your desire to go to Moonshadow?” he asked, and she kept her smile, “I’m in no hurry. And if you’re whole again I will have you with me to find another way. Besides, getting your body back so you’re not stuck in the lamp is much more important.

Minutes passed, and he didn’t respond.

Guardian?” she asked, and sensed his attentiveness, but not a response.

“Guardian, what’s wrong?” Kaileena blurted aloud, more urgently, and Itaku tensed beside her. Still, he didn’t speak. Had she said something wrong?

I wish I’d had you with me when I fell. I’d stopped believing that people like you could exist. You guided me back from nothingness, you gave me purpose, and now, you offer me wholeness, at your own deficit?” he asked, his tone unreadable.

Is that not what friends do?” Kaileena asked, pulling out the lamp.

A friend.” he gasped, as if unfamiliar with the term, “I was the firstborn of Lord Surthath, the strongest of my kin, who lorded over what we saw as “the lesser races”. I didn’t have friends, never did. Only allies, or lovers, or rivals. What a lowly being I was. What a naïve fool. I understand now; I understand.”

“What?” she asked, and Guardian emerged from the lamp, startling her and the others, “I understand what that term means, and what it means to me. Thank you, Kaileena, daughter of Lenao and Shinabi and Uchiki. I thank you for this, from the bottom of my heart.”

Kaileena smiled, setting down the lamp, and knowing that Guardian was at least partially corporeal she fell into him, wrapping him in an embrace, “No. Thank you, Guardian. Thank you for being with me. For being there for me. I would be lost without you as well; a victim of a world to which I don’t truly belong, existing but not living. You are my friend, Guardian, and we will triumph even as we suffer. Together.”

The Karyudo Kisai agents ignored her. Even Maki averted his gaze. Golem just stood there, as if the emotions didn’t register with him. Perhaps they didn’t.

“Thank you, Kaileena. Please; your guardian I am and will forever remain, but name me Arteth.” he replied proudly, with a confidence she hadn’t seen before, “Thanks to you, I now have hope for the legacy of that name. By your side, I will redeem it.”

After the chaos died down, it fell upon the remaining Te Fukushu to execute the Skraul prisoners. This was done swiftly; a clean decapitation, far better than if the roles had been reversed.

The hybrids were bound and muzzled, to be handed over to Jhihro for experimentation. With luck a cure could be found for them. If not, well...there was one way to give them peace.

Only one vampyre wasn’t bound.

“Vala.” Shirudo said, eyeing her critically, “I’m truly grateful for what you’ve done, but why would you aid us? You are a Skraul, right?”

“Yes, she is. And I find this to be a delightful opportunity.” Jhihro mused, eyeing the female unsettlingly, “Please, if you would consent to accompany me I’d love to perform a cursory inspection of your anatomy.”

“I think not.” Vala replied dryly, “Please; there is much you need to be aware of, and unless you attempt to take my life I am not your enemy.”

“Very well. Go on.” He said, eyeing her warily.

“You’ve done well in breaking this coven and slaying its Matriarch. However, this is only one victory towards a larger campaign, if you wish to destroy the Skraul in their entirety. If you allow me, I would help you in this.” She explained, “I have no other purpose now, save to curry favor with the great enemy of the Dread Hammer, Lord Surthath”.

“What do you mean, a greater campaign? The Skraul gathered here are no more. What-”

“You remember Uejini mentioning being the least of the Royal Line. If that were the case, where are the rest?” Koukatsuna interrupted, and while Shirudo was irritated at being cut off, the same thought had occurred to him.

“This isn’t the only world we’ve conquered.” Vala said, and Shirudo’s heart sank, “How many others?”

Vala didn’t hesitate, “Seven. Seven worlds; one for each Matriarch. All other worlds were purged of life. The armies found here pale utterly in comparison to the ones the greater Matriarchs boast, and Uejini had fallen out of Dur’Artoth’s favor. I could sense it. If she hadn’t, none of us would be here now to discuss this.”

“Seven worlds, destroyed by the Skraul? Why?!”

“The Dread Hammer wishes all life destroyed. How else can he do so? After a great defeat in the past, he lost the most direct way to achieve his end; necromancy. Thus, he wishes to raise a great host through vampyrism. He will destroy every mortal world, breeding more and more Skraul and Vampyric-Hybrid slaves, until he is stopped.”

“Why do the Skraul fight for one with such a goal? Won’t they be killed too?” Shirudo wondered, overwhelmed by events.

“They seek power, above all else. They believe they will merge with their god upon death. That is their fervor, and their fallacy. I know well the poisonous faith of Dur’Artoth; he is my father.” Vala replied, and all the others tensed, himself included, “Your...father?.”

“Yes; I was raised on an ancient, dead planet beside many sisters, to become Matriarchs; the vessels of his holy power. Though most of us died, eight remained. Eight Matriarchs, myself among them. But I was stripped of my status and my true form long ago when I dared consider abandoning his campaign.”

Shirudo blanched, but she cut him off before she could reply, “Before you ask, no. I lost much of my powers as well, but some of it still remains, and I offer it in your service. I want them all to die for what they took from me. So I will pass through the Way-gate that will be created here, produced not by sacrifices but a power known as the Eternal Return, into a realm known as Teikoku, as my kin do. I hope I can count on you to follow me there.”

“Why attack this land, Teikoku, in particular?” Koukatsuna asked, and Vala shook her head, “I don’t know for sure. Stories tell of a defeat he sustained on that world long ago, but I suspect something else. Dur’Artoth doesn’t dwell on personal; there must be something he wants.”

“And what of the Skraul that remain on this world?” Shirudo asked, and she shrugged, “If any remain in the settlements, they are few indeed.”

“Good, we will wait for this Way-Gate to open, then, and if it does, all those who can fight, with the exception of two hundred to safeguard the realm and train more of our people to hunt the Karu and the last dregs of the Skraul will enter and engage those on the other side.”

“Sir?! We-”

“We cannot risk leaving this to whatever mortals call that realm home. If all worlds are at stake, we must press on; we must persevere, for all our sakes! Keep the prisoners near; they are coming with us.”

“And what of me? Am I to be forced to leave with you in order to carry out my research? The nerve!” Jhihro groaned, and Koukatsuna clubbed him in the back of the head.

“You are Te Fukushu so you come too, research or no. When will the gate open, Vala?” he asked, and she looked to him grimly, “Soon, very soon.”

“So be it. Let us bury our dead.”

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