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

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Chapter 12

I sense a presence.” Arteth warned, and Kaileena signaled the others.

The Karyudo Kisai closed ranks around her and Itaku. They didn’t question her; after the battle with the Kami they accepted her counsel at face value.

Maki took the lead, his kusarigama poised to strike at either the left or right flank. Golem was at her flank, opposite Itaku. As one, they moved forward.

“Where?” Maki asked, and she shook her head slowly. Arteth wasn’t certain; the forest was a confused tangle of conflicting energies, some magickal, some not.

“There.” Arteth said through her, his voice basso and inhumanly deep. Kaileena strained her eyes, but could still discern little through the dense vegetation.

Another stone toss and she noted a tree that clearly wasn’t bamboo, very out of place. When she got closer, she understood why. The tree was man-shaped, with a face, its mouth open and hollow, in the midst of an agonized scream.

“What...what is that thing?” she blurted, earning a collective scowl from her allies.

A Karyudo Kisai reached forward to touch it, but she stopped him with a hiss.

“Magicka.” she explained, approaching the tree. Projecting herself through telepathy, Kaileena sought an intelligence in the tree, mentally probing as she did when trying to contact Arteth. It was the first time she’d tried any other being, and she found herself appealing only to empty air.

Tail lashing uncertainly, Kaileena drew closer, daring to brush her hand across its bark. She hissed, as her hand immediately engulfed in purple embers.

“A defensive enchantment.” she observed, drawing her hand back to herself, “A powerful one. Feels transformative; like when I turned dirt into quicksand. I think it wanted to change me somehow.”

“It’s magickal and its dangerous.” Maki said harshly, “Burn it.”

“Won’t that cause a wildfire?” Kaileena asked, concerned for the forest animals as much as her well being, and the Karyudo Kisai Agent shook his head, “We use flares, not torches, intended for flash fires. They go out on their own after a minute or two; more to cause a distraction than for destroying a building or forest.”

Her heart fluttered; whatever was powering the enchantments on the man-tree was strong indeed. It felt like taking the Colossus’ eye beam all over again.

Nodding her assent, Kaileena tried to take a few steps, wavered uncertainly, and, at his insistence, let Golem carry her, who followed Itaku as the detachment went further into the forest. It occurred to her that Lenao had only said to travel east. Had he meant due east?

For that matter, how far were they to travel before reaching the Kodama? Would they be friendly?

She guessed that her worries were irrelevant; Lenao would not have led them astray.

Don’Yoku, High Priest of the Renmei Keiji Cult, sat patiently as he awaited word from God. He didn’t have to wait long.

“We who witness the end rejoice, for madness ends with it.” he whispered, invoking the chant of the Renmei Keiji Cult.

You have done well.” the Dread Hammer replied in his thoughts, “There is a path you must travel; one that will cull the weak and elevate yourself to a place by my side as my chosen herald.

A herald?! The notion was…sobering

“What do you wish of me, Master?” Don’Yoku asked, his hands parted in supplication, and God replied, “You will travel west with true followers. You will find a great tower crafted by the Kamiyonanayo in ages passed, home to a powerful enchanter.

“You wish an enemy destroyed? I shall abide, Master. Speak the name of the fool that has-”

You are to submit yourself to his authority, and ensure that his plans succeed.” Dur’Artoth interrupted, “When the time is right, I will see to it that his plans coincide with my own, and instruct you accordingly.

The thought of subjecting himself to an enchanter; a slave of the Hitorigami, was displeasing, but Don’Yoku took solace in the fact that the conquest of Teikoku would indeed occur within his lifespan, “It shall be done, Master.”

“There was something I wanted to ask you.” Commander Itaku said abruptly, and Kaileena blinked, rousing from her daydream. She’d acclimated to the influx of magicka quickly, but having Golem carry her did wonders for her aching feet, so she hadn’t asked to be set down.

“First, though, I would like you to tell me of yourself.” he continued, and she frowned, considering, “What’s there to tell? I like flowers, dyes, mathematics, and mitarashi dango. When the moment is right I like dancing. Why do you ask?”

“It’s bothered me since the Hitorigami set me to this task, and I find it more and more of a bothersome itch now that I have a better understanding of both you and Master Lenao.” Itaku noted, grimacing, using his sheathed katana as a walking aid.

Apparently, he hadn’t walked much lately either, because he’d developed painful sores on his feet.

“Why are you helping us? It would seem that you’re doing so because the Hitorigami asked you to. Or is it because this will aid your own cause? I merely wish to better understand your motives”.

This man is far too clever for his own good. Perhaps you should just shrug him off.” Arteth suggested, and Kaileena was hesitant to answer that aloud, “Why? He’s done nothing to prove himself untrustworthy, and he could have killed me long ago if he had the mind to do so.”

Remember that he is an enchanter-hunter by trade, and you are an enchanter. One technique in catching a quarry at a later date is in understanding how that person thinks. Even if your leader promises safety and asylum from these men, telling him more about you may be ill advised…

“Your friend is wise in suspecting me.” Itaku chuckled, his intuition making her increasingly uneasy, “True, his logic is sound; I hunt your kind, well, enchanters at least. The fact that you aren’t human complicates the matter, but I assure you; the Hitorigami’s will is my own, and if he decrees you are untouchable, not a single man in the Karyudo Kisai will trouble you. Ever. This is merely for my own personal understanding; a curiosity that is bred not from suspicion or ulterior motives, but by my genuine concern for our well being. If we are to fight again, against even more powerful enemies, then I would like to understand exactly how you will react to these situations and what I can and cannot trust you to do.”

Kaileena sighed, thinking, “So be it. You wish to measure my resemblance to a human? I will save you the effort; I am human. I feel that I am more human than many humans. I do this to stop a man who threatens others for his own gain, and because it will make my life much easier if I survive, and because I have respect and empathy for the Hitorigami, but mostly because it would be irresponsible not to help others when I’m capable of doing so. I may be a pacifist, but I don’t want anyone to get hurt either.”

“Yokai is far stronger than you...are you not afraid of him?” he asked, and her reply was immediate, ”Of course I am. But the point is it doesn’t matter if I am. It’s not going to stop me.”

“I think I see now. Thank you, Kaileena.” Itaku replied, offering a stern and short bow. She inclined her head, since Golem was still carrying her and she couldn’t bow.

“Are you sure you don’t mind this?” she asked Golem; it felt awkward having him bear her like this, “For my creator’s lovely daughter? Certainly not. Rest your legs, and leave the walking to someone physically incapable of getting tired.”

“Okay, if you’re sure. Itaku, there was something I wished to know as well.” Kaileena said, “I was wondering why you originally joined the Karyudo Kisai.”

Itaku frowned, “Why do you wish to know of this?” he asked, and she hesitated a moment.

“You hunt enchanters; that is your profession.” she replied, “I would imagine something gave you particular enmity towards the people you hunt and kill as a career.”

For a time, he was silent, and eventually she scoffed and looked away.

“My nephew, Kanto.” he replied, startling her, “A young boy, brilliant given his age. Though I felt a great shame of it once, he developed affinity for magicka and tried to hide it, even from the family. Karyudo Kisai agents learned of his power before any of us did… They took him to the Renmei Kisai for indoctrination, but not before cutting off his fingers and tongue. They said he resisted, but I know their words were false; Kanto was like you, always so careful of stepping over toes, afraid to hurt anyone even if he hurt himself in the process.”

He looked to her, despondent, “I immediately fought for admittance within the order. I advanced quickly to high officer, then captain, and finally commander. Under my leadership the Karyudo Kisai became a force to be respected. I sought agents with the temperament to capture enchanters peacefully, while halting the advancement of men who operated like the Colossus. We are the Hitorigami’s police, not his thugs, and that’s the way it was supposed to be all along. Enchanters can find a place in this country, but such power comes at a price. I don’t hate them, but I do what I must to keep Teikoku safe. That’s just the way of the world.”

Kaileena nodded, sadly, “Forgive me; I was impulsive. I met an enchanter in the market, and seeing him compared to the Colossus; I imagined the Karyudo Kisai as villains and nothing more.”

“You have a good heart, Kaileena.” Itaku offered, as they continued on their path east.

“I know little of your guardian. Would he by chance be willing to speak with me as well?” he inquired, and Kaileena waited to see how Arteth would react. Dark mist enveloped her pack, and her Familiar emerged partway from the lamp, his lower half nothing but a tendril of smoke.

“The contents of my memory and identity will only make our doings awkward. Suffice to say, my only true motivation is to Kaileena’s safety and happiness, and if anything else, I unrealistically dream of redeeming myself of my past doings, even if I was not…conscious, during their commission.”

“And what are your past doings?” Itaku pressed, “What were you before you were Kaileena’s Familiar?” to which Arteth flicked his wings; the equivalent of a shrug, “The answer to that is simple, Karyudo Kisai. I was a monster. A vain, selfish, insane monster, who nearly destroyed this world in my folly. The fact that the “I” was inside of the lamp during the commission of my crimes does not excuse me, for the being I diverged from was still me. I am his leavings, his husk, an echo of the being that was once Dur’Arteth. But know this; whatever I was, I am now Kaileena’s ward, her shield and sword. Her cause is mine, and I will sacrifice myself, happily, to see her ends met.”

“I see. Well, Kaileena, I will trust your judgment on whether or not he is a viable ally. What do you think of this Ryū fellow?”

“He…seems to want the same things we do. I’m sure you’d approve of Yokai’s power being spent far, far from Teikoku.” She replied, and Itaku nodded, satisfied, “I came to much the same conclusion. I also wonder how he knows Kamiyonanayo, in spite of the fact that he spoke a different tongue.”

“Perhaps I can shed some light on this.” Arteth said through her, “There are fewer mortal languages than you might think; in times long passed portal magicka was much more common, distributed to mortals by various Kamiyonanayo. As my people and our rivals spread influence through the Veil, many mortals followed suit, taking their languages and customs with them. Nihongo didn’t originate on this world, after all. It was brought here, as it seems to have been brought to the Silkrit as well.”

“Why can’t we understand each other, then?” she asked, to which he shrugged, “Languages evolve over time. His is simply a dialect that diverged too much from its original incarnation, as did yours. But he’s learning the differences very quickly. How could he not, after all? It’s his language, too.”

Itaku ignored the revelation of his people’s linguistic origins, and she could tell he was unsettled.

The intruders were nearby. They’d destroyed the ward, with fire no less! Fire was Rel’Gaarmathar’s element.

Ran Hanasaku pursued them, her wisp-form darting from treetop to treetop. She’d shed her physical shell, a treant mistakenly called a Kodama by the few to ever see it. Without her inhabiting it, it would again become a young oak. She could find a new shell after she dealt with these outsiders.

It didn’t take long to find the humans; they made no effort to disguise their movements. Not Lumbermen this time, but warriors! All dressed in black, save one.

"What are you?" she asked, bewildered. Ran considered it carefully; it was reptilian, female, with blue skin and a crest of pink feathers, wearing a white and pink dress, gold rings over its…horns? She carried a staff bearing a potent symbol of magicka, the pentacle.

Perhaps she was their prisoner; she was being carried, after all. Or maybe she was crippled.

Ran did not attack as planned, content to study these strange intruders for a time. With any luck, one of them would spout something of their motives, hopefully before coming much closer to the refugee encampment.

Kaileena tensed, hearing something to their left.

“Commander…” she whispered, and Itaku was already in a battle stance, as were the other Karyudo Kisai. Golem set her down, and she brandished her staff.

“They have followed us in daylight?” Itaku gasped, “Defensive formation, now.”

The Karyudo Kisai formed a rough triangle, with those bearing longer-reaching weapons at the sides, preventing them from being flanked. But it wasn’t Kami that emerged from the trees, but humans; short and squat, tanned, and marked with tattoos. She mistook them for pirates for a moment, but their ill-fitting garb seemed too primal, as did their flint arrowheads.

They were surrounded, outnumbered at least five-to-one.

“Orders, sir?” Maki asked, tensely. One of the strange humans lowered his short bow, a full beard on his weathered, wrinkly face.

“Lower your weapons, and you may pass!” he said, and Arteth had an epiphany from the thick accent, his excitement making Kaileena twitch.

You may tell the Commander that these people will keep their word. Lower your staff.” He told her, and she repeated this to Itaku. After a few tense seconds, he nodded, and the Karyudo Kisai stood down. The archers likewise lowered their weapons, offering them plenty of space.

“You walk upon distant lands, people of Teikoku…but you are well met, as you slew many Kami in your journey.” Their leader said, now on ground level, approaching her and Itaku. Kaileena blinked, surprised by his casual use of Nihongo; his accent and inflection was nearly perfect.

He glanced at her, curious, but she didn’t sense any of the trepidation or morbid curiosity she usually did when meeting a human for the first time.

“I am Commander Itaku of the Karyudo Kisai, under my Hitorigami, and unless you impede our task I have no ill will against your people.” Itaku replied, and the man bowed in a strange way, with one arm partially outstretched to the side, “Well met, Commander Itaku. Let us speak further in our village, for I am curious as to why you would brave the Kami to find this distant place.”

“And you, milady…” he said to her, offering a hand, “I sense the mark of a Djinn upon you, and am most curious.”

“We have waited in complacency for far too long.” Lord Minamoto said, eyeing the present attendants for the meeting.

Lords Tetsyyubo and Takauji, North and South respectively, each sat upon a plush cushion on either side of the Hitorigami himself, who was hidden behind layers of veils and curtains.

“So you say. Where is Lord Kiromichi?” Takauji asked caustically, his rolls of neck flab wriggling.

“I personally received his report; he was attacked in his own manse by a detachment of men, now known to be Karyudo Kisai, the very agents that you recently absconded with, Lord Tetsyyubo.” Minamoto replied dryly, motioning to the ruler of the North District.

“An unfortunate occurrence, but I obtained information that he and Lord Arainami were planning a revolution against the Pirate Lords of the Renmei Kaizoku. It would seem that this rumor was true, as they are indeed unlawfully attacking their fleet.” The Cowled Lord replied smugly, his hand resting on the pommel of his katana.

“Oh Really? Then why did he wait until you attempted to assassinate him?” Minamoto inquired, and Tetsyyubo slammed his still-sheathed weapon into the polished wooden floor, splitting a panel.

“I hope you are not implying that my action against a possible traitor was…done with ill intent…” the Lord of the North District purred in his strange empty voice, and Minamoto scowled, “I question if Kiromichi and his accomplice indeed are-”

“Enough!” The Hitorigami snapped, silencing both Minamoto and the Cowled Lord, “I was under the impression you had word of the attack on Fusestu.”

“Yes, my Hitorigami. It came from the sky; a Dragon, that breathed storms and fire. It rampaged through my capital until I managed to defeat it, and fled west. Judging by the report of the outlaw Yokai, his original offense was attempting to summon a Dragon, and therefore, I surmise that he was the culprit of a direct attack on Teikoku and its people, bringing about the loss of many lives. This cannot go unpunished.” Minamoto said, eliciting a tentative nod from Lord Takauji.

Lord Tetsyyubo didn’t appear fazed, “Unfortunate, but was Itaku not already tasked to dealing with this? Or has the potential threat of the Pirate Lords vanished somehow?”

“Actually.” The Hitorigami mused, “With Lord Kiromichi occupying them with his, shall we say, ‘suspicious but not outwardly traitorous actions’, the immediate potential for a sea invasion is unlikely. It would be possible to send a detachment of soldiers to attack Yokai, especially if he has declared war on my land.”

“But my Hitorigami…” Lord Tetsyyubo mused, “Surely with his barrier, it would be a waste of-”

“Are you suggesting we should allow unprovoked attacks on villages? I quiver at the thought of how your district must be enforced, if the needs of the people are so easily ignored.” The Hitorigami replied angrily, “And I also trust that you do not intend to speak over me again, Lord of the North District.

“No, my Hitorigami.” Tetsyyubo replied, defeated, “Of course not.”

“Very well then. I will allow seventy of my palace guards to fight for Itaku’s cause. I assume you will wish to lead the assault personally, Minamoto?” the Hitorigami asked, to which he nodded immediately, “This attack on my people is an attack on my honor. I will personally avenge those lost by this treachery, if I have to tear that damned tower down to its foundations.”

Itaku sat cross-legged on a cushion of furs in Garth’s yurt, having politely removed his sandals before entering. There were no other trappings aside from a mortar and pestle with some other, odder alchemical instruments. He saw Kaileena marveling at a beaker with two intertwining coils of handmade glass, which merged together near the bottom and were impossibly situated over a burner plate and basin. If he had to guess, Itaku would imagine that the device was intended to merge two fluid reagents together with even distribution of the ingredients.

He snapped his fingers to get her attention, as he saw their host preparing to speak.

“Now then; with everything settling down, your men will be eating well at the communal table, and we have a moment to chat in peace.” Garth said, crossing his legs with the bottoms of his feet pointing diagonally and up, suggesting very limber joints for a man of his assumed age, “Ah; it’s been some time since I had the chance to use this tongue. The Kodama taught it to me, as well as their own language, but of the four that I know, this one is the least difficult for me to speak. Ironic. I’m sure you have many questions. I will be happy to answer them, and perhaps aid you in your journey if I can, but this is a very unusual turn of events, and I have to know if the Djinn are returning to Aurora”.

It was Kaileena who replied, “No; my familiar and friend merely used to be a...Djinn, under Lord Surthath. He emerged from his phylactery in order to help me, and I likewise endeavor to help him by restoring his body. His name is-” Kaileena suddenly paused in confusion. Itaku knew why. The Kamiyonanayo had mentioned that he’d done awful things…would Garth and his people know of him

“What is Aurora?” she finally asked, and Garth frowned, taking notice, “Aurora is the name that Surthath gave this world, or at least it was what he’d taken to calling it when humanity first began to build civilizations with his aid.”

Kaileena frowned in confusion. “We humans built Teikoku.” Itaku said dryly, and Garth chuckled, “No, no. You are right. Teikoku was built by humans, only under very minor influence from the Djinn. But there is another civilization far to the east, thousands of leagues away, which primarily bore the name of Aurora, that Surthath directly influenced. Your land shares the continent with our old one, and therefore Teikoku is also part of Aurora.”

“Now then, onto perhaps the more interesting matter; why are you here?” Garth asked, and the Commander of the Karyudo Kisai tried to word his response tactfully but also honestly, “A powerful enchanter named Yokai has declared war on our people, killed many innocents, and has secluded himself to consolidate his power. If he succeeds in his ends, our entire nation will be destroyed. Another enchanter had advised the Hitorigami and myself that something called the ancestor seed would be needed to absorb his power, should he gain what he desires. I was told the Kodama possess this item.”

Garth assumed a veiled expression. “Yes, that item is here. It is a powerful artifact, one entrusted to our people by the Celestials, the Djinn of Anima herself, after the fall of the Dreadborne and the Demon Dur’Arteth.” he said, eyeing Kaileena hostilely, “The fact that this shattered Djinn declines to reveal his name, I will assume he is indeed Dur’Arteth…and you would ask that I give him this holy relic?”

Things weren’t looking good.

“The Kamiyonanayo in Kaileena’s guardianship mentioned he’d once done terrible things, but he is driven by the shame of his past wrongs and a desire to redeem himself. By stopping this Yokai, we, and by extension, he, will have saved all of Teikoku. Surely you can acknowledge that such a deed would help to right things.”

There was a whoosh of air, and Itaku turned to see the half-formed Kamiyonanayo, “You are correct, Garth. I am all that remains of Dur’Arteth before his descent into madness. Though I was severed from the whole of that being, I am he, and his crimes are my own. If your wish for justice is true, then destroy the lamp, and thus destroy me utterly.”

“No!” Kaileena gasped, snatching up the lamp and holding it to her chest protectively, “You cannot just allow yourself to die…-”

“Dur’Arteth was a being that nearly destroyed all of Aurora; a being of pure evil that enslaved the souls of the living. He was, is, a villain far beyond this Yokai, and a monster that conquered and replaced the Dread Hammer himself! He destroyed our home of Melagoi, most of Augur, and the El’Dari forests. Thousands, nay, tens of thousands, died at his command!” Garth snapped, his nostrils flared and his fists closed so tightly his nails were digging furrows into his skin.

Arteth lowered his head. “If it is your wish, I will accept death. But know that will you endanger thousands of lives in denying their request. Teikoku is in genuine peril, and to ignore such a threat would be irresponsible, for was the Order of the Talon, the leadership of your society, not dedicated to the preservation of life?”

Garth stood up, irate, “And who are you to speak of this?! You, who butchered my people? I should kill you for even mentioning my ancestors.”

There was a shuffle outside, with four men and two women entering the yurt with long slender knives, eyeing the Kamiyonanayo with mixed awe and fear.

“The facts do not change, even if I am the one speaking them.” Arteth said in a low, threatening voice, “I have offered my life, and I can do nothing more than that.”

“Please! He’s not the same one who did these horrible things. You must see that!” Kaileena pleaded, and the Kamiyonanayo waved her off, “They are right to hate me, youngling. I may not have been the part of Dur’Arteth to fall to darkness, but the part that did was far stronger. Dur’Arteth as a whole was evil, and therefore unworthy of your defense. Please do not make this worse.”

There was a call of alarm, and both Itaku and Garth eyed each other carefully, “Was there anyone not among your group that followed you?” he asked, and Itaku nodded.

“Red-skinned fellow? Let him in. He’s no threat, and neither is Dur’Arteth, at least presently.” he replied, and a few moments after the elder waved off his personal guard Ryū entered the yurt, eyeing the Kamiyonanayo, then Kaileena, and only finally Garth.

“No threat, you say? This creature reeks of ancient death. We know well the tales. Vampyres, they were called. A most foul breed.” Garth noted, and Ryū scowled, rubbing the pommels of his short blades, “You risk your safety by mocking me, human. I’m not what you think I am.”

Garth conceded at that, shrugging, “So be it. I know you not. You may remain here…for now.”

“Could you tell us more of this ancestor seed? I would like to know if there is any known equivalent in my own lands.” Itaku interjected, trying to steer the conversation from its current course. He’d woefully misjudged the Kamiyonanayo, and Ryū’s presence hadn’t helped either.

“The item you seek is our memory of the ancestor tree. The seed, entrusted to us by Anima, resides here, in our only real settlement after our society was destroyed by the Dreadborne. It is not something I would bestow lightly, especially not to strangers.” Garth said, and Itaku silently motioned with his hand, a signal carried by an enchanted bauble to Maki; instructing him to gather the men in case an organized raid was needed.

He didn’t want to harm these people, but he had his task, and his order; any means necessary.

“…therefore, I ask for an act of good faith, that you no longer be strangers to my people. Assist us in dealing with the Kami, and I will accompany you with the seed in my possession.”

Itaku nodded in approval, and relayed the new orders to his underling.

“Djinn.” Garth said, looking back to Arteth, “If you truly wish to redeem yourself to my people, have the girl bring you with us the coming morning.”

It felt good that he was getting used to all this green; to seeing all this life around him. He sat, cross-legged, setting aside his heavy cloak and his mithril mask, privy to the forest around him. This would’ve been a fine night to strum his Duclimer beside Oki, and listen as she sang to accompany.

He sighed; would she have feared what he had become, were she still alive? Or would she see perhaps a glimmer of what once was when she looked deep into his eyes?

He noted Kaileena’s scent, and knew she wasn’t far. Not at all, in fact; she’d gotten very close while he sat there, distracted. She sat behind him, and after some hesitation, gently ran her hands around the scars across his back.

“Totoanatsukami keep us…” she gasped, and Ryu ignored the ache of her touch, allowing her to glean what she would, “Why did you not show us this sooner? Arteth could have tried to heal you.”

Ryū shook his head, “They will not mend. Not ever. I received these scars before I turned; they have forever become a part of me.”

Kaileena moved to sit beside him, despondent.

“I appreciate the gesture, however.” he added, daring to look her in the eyes. She nodded, hastily, and looked away. He’d seen the fearful looks his appearance provoked, but this was not one of those… He couldn’t quite place why Kaileena was so ill at ease.

“Of course!” he mused, “You have never before seen one of your own kind. You are unsure of our ways, and how to speak to me.”

Kaileena nodded, “I’ve lived with humans all my life. I’ve never met another Silkrit until now...what are we like?”

Ryū smiled, took her hand. It was soft, and felt warm against his undead flesh.

“These humans seem much like those I hunted with.” he observed, “Determined, strong, and mostly good of heart. The humans I found in the villages seemed much like those we fought to protect. So I say with confidence the Silkrit and Humans have much in common.”

“Do they fight each other, like humans do?” she asked, troubled, and he shook his head, “Nay; we are all of common cause. Even in the old days another Silkrit was family from the moment you met him. We stuck together. If we fought, it was a trifling thing, quickly forgotten in new friendship.”

Kaileena smiled at that, “They sound wonderful. I hope I can meet them too.”

Gods, she was beautiful, Ryū thought, kind and gentle. Despite her alien coloration and features, she reminded him so much of Oki that his heart ached. He let go of her hand, before it stirred anything he couldn’t handle, smiling warmly, “Me too. You would have a place among us. Born of our home world or of Moonshadow, you are still Silkrit.”

She nodded, grateful, “A place to belong...that would be a precious thing to me.”

Her smile died, and he saw a familiar, haunted look come over her. Very familiar.

“I should go. I imagine we will have a long day ahead of us.” Kaileena said, rising to her feet. He would have spoken for much longer, but she needed to rest. And she had her own past to contend with. He rose as well, and offered a bow, “Good night, Kaileena.”

As she turned away in the direction of her yurt, Ryū caught another scent in the wind. He turned, seeing Garth approach, “If you don’t mind, I would like you to join me. There’s someone I want you to meet.”

“Are you certain this is wise?” Ran Hanasaku asked, having found a new vessel and shaped it accordingly.

“I am certain of nothing in this world.” Garth replied, having delivered the Vampyre to their other guest of honor, one who’d been here for much longer, “But their motives seem pure.”

“Seem” was hardly sufficient proof for her. It was possibly no fault of their own; Ran, a Kodama, felt inherent mistrust in Surthath and his minions. Nothing they ever did in the Veil seemed to end well, and Garth and his people were proof enough of that.

“And you wish to offer them the ancestor seed?” she sighed, “Very well. What your people do with their property is your business. It just feels wrong.”

“Still, their efforts against the Kami may be worth it. Do you think…” she began, and Garth silenced her, “We will find the truth of this matter tomorrow. If they succeed, both our peoples will be indebted to them. If they fail, then the ancestor seed will remain safely in the care of my people, and I have lived long enough to choose worthy candidates for taking my place as the leader of the tribe.”

Did he mean…?

“Ran, you know the ways of humans; we are short lived, and seek to explore and experience more than most races because of this. I am nearing my twilight hours, and seek one last task of vital importance for which I can serve my people. I think the opportunity has come with these foreigners.” he paused, suddenly bitter, “...I just wish I wasn’t faced with the irony of fighting alongside our ancient adversary to do so.”

Though she was very tired, the cozy furs just didn’t seem to satisfy.

Kaileena rose, having tried in vain to fall asleep for the last hour or so. Creeping out of the room, she let herself soak in the cool wind outside, watching through the lighter patches of trees to the night sky beyond.

“Can’t sleep? Me neither.” A voice whispered behind her, and turning to face the speaker, two hands cupped over her eyes. She would have jumped or called for help, but it wasn’t an aggressive gesture; there was no strength behind it.

“Guess who.” the woman demanded, and Kaileena was in just the right mood to humor her.

“A Melagonian?” she suggested, naming Garth’s people, and the speaker didn’t reply. An incorrect answer.

“Another vampyre, like Ryū?” she guessed again, and again there was silence. Interesting.

“Your accent is off; you cannot be from Teikoku…okay, I give up”.

“Oh come on! You still have one obvious guess you haven’t thought of.” the woman said, giggling, but still Kaileena was unsure of her meaning. It was just the Melagonians here. Wait; the Melagonians mentioned they had been invited as guests themselves…by the Kodama!

“You are a Spriggan.” Kaileena concluded, and the hands fell from her face. She turned to see a being similar to an elf perhaps, but with odd, hard growths of dark brown material along her otherwise smooth, light-green skin. Her eyes, diagonally lidded, were a deep, vibrant yellow, and dark tresses fell to her waist, tangled with twigs, flowers, and other detritus. She was garbed in nothing, with only the irregular growths hiding her modesty. Wait…was that tree bark?!

“More or less. This body used to be a tree, after all.” She replied, bowing low, “Allow me to introduce myself, I am Ran Hanasaku.”

Unsure of exactly how to respond, it was the Spriggan who spoke again, “I wanted to see you, Kaileena Kazeatari of Teikoku. My sisters as well, and it would mean a lot if you would join us for an evening repast and a little relaxation.”

Again, Kaileena was too flustered to reply, but with Ran’s persistence she reneged and let the Kodama lead her across the camp, the few refugees still awake eyeing them both with only fleeting interest.

“They don’t seem suspicious of me, as my own people often do.” she noted, and Ran smiled, “They see different things all the time, and are somewhat inoculated to surprise. This also makes them sadly incapable of scintillating conversation.”

It may have seemed odd, but Kaileena felt at ease with this being. Perhaps creatures of magicka simply had an affinity for one another.

“I noticed many fruit trees.” Kaileena asked, curious, “But no crops. Tell me; how does a camp of this size maintain itself?”

Ran giggled, “We don’t need crops. We ask the plants to grow quickly, and the weeds to grow elsewhere. Those fruit trees replenish almost daily. We have tricks when it comes to such things, and the Melagonians are free to hunt if they need to. We don’t like that they do this, but they have to. If a wolf does not eat meat, it grows weak and sickly. Same with humans. We monitor it, though. To hunt to live is one thing, but to hunt out of laziness is another.”

There was an earthy, mineral scent in the air, which grew warmer and warmer. Eventually, she began to see drifting currents of fog. Kaileena nearly thought it was the Kami again, but she noticed the way the fog traveled, and why it made no sense for it to be fog at all. It was steam

“There is a spring nearby.” She observed, and Ran nodded, “We like to gather here. My sisters and I worship the memory of Anima, and we love hidden, secluded places in the forests, especially places near water; the giver of life.”

“Anima? A Totoanatsukami, right?” Kaileena asked, to which the Kodama smiled, “Dur’Arteth has told you something of their kind. Anima is the embodiment of life, and the renewal thereof. We think that Anima, or more importantly, her Celestials, created us, or at least oversaw our creation on some level, but I personally wouldn’t call it belief.”

“Why not?” Kaileena asked, earning a pleasant laugh, “Well, personally, I think a belief is admission of certainty, and nothing can really be certain when it comes to mortals, even ageless mortals like ourselves. An idea is subject to opinion or observation, where a belief only restricts and binds. We find it wrong to force anything, even a concept, onto someone, even if they arrive at the same conclusion. That is why we think that Anima made us, but if any of our sisters harbored another idea, it wouldn’t trouble us in the slightest.”

As they entered a small copse surrounded by dense forest, they passed more Kodama, either lounging in the grass or in the wide circular depression which held many pools of bubbling water, fed heat by a series of small volcanic vents. Some had bark patches like Ran, others had tufts of fur, feather, or scale irregularly sprouting across their bodies. One of the Spriggans held her neck with her hands, and releasing them in the water, slits opened along her throat and little bubbles came out of them. Some studied her, others were still wrapped in conversation.

Almost all of them were naked, and it made her uneasy. They mustn’t have the same standards of modesty, perhaps.

“A newcomer? Please, make yourself at home.” A somehow stranger Kodama said, eyeing her from one of the pools, and her guide smiled, “Kaileena, allow me to introduce you to Rairakku Hanasaku, our Matron and High Priestess.”

Greeting the Kodama, she offered a stiff, formal bow, earning an amused chortle from her guide.

“Kaileena, you need not bow. None do here.” Rairakku chided, “Please, sit with us beside the pool.”

Not wanting to offend, Kaileena did just that, and marveled at her host’s particularly unusual appearance. Most she’d seen so far took on a particular aspect, be it animal or plant; wolf, bird, and so forth. But Rairakku was different; she sported patches of purple and white Lilacs over her body, clustering in ways that concealed what needed to be, as well as golden bands around her forearms, thighs, and neck. There were two massive horns, at least two thirds the size of her arm, which protruded almost completely horizontally from the upper sides of her head, just above the ears, from which hung ivy vines clutching bells and glowing orbs of green, gold, and clear light.

She was already waist-deep, and as she lowered herself, the flowers around her body floating up to the surface of the water, possibly to avoid drowning.

Ran took a seat beside her, kneeling. “Now then; Ran has brought you here to ask if you were interested in joining our sisterhood, but first, let us enjoy each other’s company.” Rairakku said, and Kaileena eyed her sidelong.

“Sisterhood?” she asked, “You refer to priestesses of Anima?” to which Rairakku smiled, “Of a sorts. You noticed that both Ran and I carry the distinction of Hanasaku?”

Kaileena nodded, having noticed it, imagining them to be kin, “All of us carry that distinction, for it is integral to our names. Ran Hanasaku means “Orchid in Bloom” whereas my name means “Lilac in Bloom”. We both prefer plant forms when not in our current state, while some of our kin prefer animal forms, but all of us bear the Hanasaku name in reverence to our matron. And we are not exclusive, not at all. Both Melagonians and El’Dari are among our numbers, all women. By design; while males are freely accepted and able to attend some of our ceremonies, only a woman can truly appreciate Anima’s blessings, for they bear life’s greatest gift; the ability to create life. Women are her ideal heralds.”

“And that is why I’m here?” Kaileena asked, slightly offended.

“No; we have divined much of you through magicka, and to an extent, we comprehend your inner self and motivations. You are no warrior like those you follow. You are of a gentle heart, and feel a passion for life; your love of botany and general aversion to meat is an example of this. As is your unwillingness to wantonly fight. We think you have the temperament of someone who would appreciate this offer.”

“And if I accept?” she asked, Arteth watching through her with distant curiosity, to which Rairakku replied, “Then we will count you as a sister, in body and spirit. You will always be welcome here, and cared for if you’re hurt or in need. All Kodama and the very beasts of the forest will not harm you, seeing Anima’s favor.”

“But I am also an enchanter; a practitioner of magicka. Would I not technically already be a worshiper of Surthath?” she asked, earning a nod, “Hai, Surthath is one among the Old Ones that were directly allied with Anima. So no, your use of Surthath’s power is of no consequence, even if you directly worshiped him.”

Kaileena gave it some thought, twiddling her thumbs; it was a sensible offer, to join those of seemingly like minds, but she was confused by their use of past tense in reference to Anima. Was she dead? Did they serve a dead god?

Nothing ever truly dies.” Arteth reminded her, “Things merely…change form. Anima still exists on some level, as does her power. It would be a sensible choice for you to make in joining them.

Do you think I should?” she asked, knowing her friend would hear, “The choice is yours, Kaileena. I have no place to say.

“What would my responsibilities be as a priestess?” Kaileena asked, eyeing her host carefully.

“Very smart to ask; you have sworn oaths to both your ruler, this Hitorigami, and to the Karyudo Kisai, and you will likely swear many more in your travels. It is wise to ensure that you never find yourself between breaking one promise or another if they conflict. Really, the rules are simple; do not needlessly kill others, animals, or any other form of life. Attack only to defend yourself or others, and only when there is no other option. Do not strike or belittle those around you. Do not ally yourself with those that would seek to destroy life. Treat your sisters as kin, and show them the respect they show you. Really, there is little else that is more than superficial.”

Many eyes were upon her now, and Kaileena could think of little to ease the tension she felt. It wasn’t them, she realized, nor was it Anima, but the fact that Kaileena had never known there were others who shared her views and desires so intimately.

“Yes. I think I would like to join you.” Kaileena finally concluded, and she sensed approval from her familiar.

“Wonderful, young one. You honor us.” Rairakku said, “Come, bathe in the hot springs with us, ere you return to bed.”

Kaileena blanched, somewhat unwilling to undress with so many others around.

“There is no need to feel timid, young one. It’s your own body after all.” Ran giggled behind her, idly plucking at the sash holding together her corset-like obi, unfolding her kimono. Kaileena groaned, but steeled herself in order to humor her new kin, and set her clothing onto a small leather tarp that was provided to her, slipping off her leggings and sandals. Keeping the mind not to step on any of the numerous flowers around the springs, she approached the waters, covering her sensitive areas with her arms.

Sighing, Kaileena stepped in a few paces from Rairakku, finding an incline to sit roughly neck-deep in the bubbling liquid, and nearly yelped as her feet, having adjusted to the cold grounds, throbbed with heat.

Noticing for the first time several wax-sealed baskets floating in the water, she drew one to her, and nibbled on a medley of dried nuts inside. Lacking salt, they had their own rich flavor, needing no such thing, especially how they were paired with dried fruits she didn’t recognize. Already relatively full, she only had a small portion, and Kaileena became so relaxed by the heat of the water she nearly fell asleep in those moments, exhaling deeply and closing her eyes contentedly.

It may have been a few moments, or an hour, Kaileena honestly had no idea, before the others spoke.

“Your body is at ease.” Rairakku noted, “As is your mind, but I sense your spirit remains troubled. What ails you, sister?”

Snapping awake, Kaileena saw the high priestess watching her carefully, and Ran looking up in surprise.

“What do you mean, sister? She looks fine to me.” she added, for her benefit, but Rairakku was adamant, “You are at home here. At peace. Among kin. You can tell me.”

You don’t have to.” Arteth projected, “You don’t owe it to them.

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Kaileena decided, earning a respectful nod, though she persisted, “Some weights, especially those of the heart, are better shared. You can trust us, sister. You can trust me.”

Troubled, Kaileena brought her arms about herself, but the Kodama embraced her gently, eroding her resolve.

“I lost my father recently.” she said, downcast, “He was the last of my family in Teikoku, beside my brother, who I may never be able to see again.”

Rairakku frowned, bid her continue, “My adoptive father too, I’ve lost. But that was my own fault; if he hadn’t-” she looked away, leaning in the other direction, away from Rairakku, but Ran was there, halting her.

Totoanatsukami curse it, why didn’t they just leave it be!

“If he hadn’t come to save me, he’d still be alive.” she finished, earning a confused look, “You were imprisoned?”

“I was forced to work in a brothel because I was in the way of men under the protection of the Hitorigami. I happened to be there when they hunted deer.”

“A brothel? I am not familiar with this word.” Rairakku said, disquieted. “It’s where…well, where women entertain clients, in a variety of ways.” She replied, uncomfortable. The heat felt suffocating now, but her sisters sensed this and let go, giving her room to breathe.

“And you were forced to work there. Did they make you sing and dance?” Ran inquired, obviously still not following her line of thought, and Kaileena shook her head, “Well, sometimes, but more often we served them in other ways.”

There was a sudden jolt of realization among the Kodama around her, and Rairakku frowned, “I see. I am sorry.”

“It wasn’t always that bad, sometimes they were…” Kaileena searched for the proper term, “‘polite’…but many were not. They considered me an oddity, less than human, and treated me accordingly.”

“Did you serve women as well?” Ran asked, to which Kaileena had to nod, prompting, “Which did you prefer?”

She looked to the Spriggan uncertainly, then nearly laughed when the realization struck, “Oh… well, the men, I think. The women were usually much more sympathetic and gentle, and it felt good to cuddle for a change, but…it still felt more natural when I found myself with a male, especially one that wasn’t a complete scoundrel.”

The meaning behind this line of questions became obvious.

“This is all rather sudden, is it not? I mean…” Kaileena said, and Ran rested against her, “We were about to perform our nightly rites to Anima before your arrival. She celebrates life and love, in any form, and encourages passion as much as compassion. Our invitation extends to our worship, too. You have been harmed in this way, and I, at least, want to show you the true nature of things, to let you join someone, rather than serve them. It doesn’t have to be a sacrifice, or an offering. It can be a free exchange between two beings. We won’t force anything, but if you stay I promise it won’t feel like it did before.”

They didn’t press her, like they did in Fusestu. Ran even disengaged from her, letting her make her own choice, watching without judgment.

There were no more words spoken, and Arteth excused himself out of politeness, receding when he sensed she was intrigued. Everything else had struck a chord so close to her own heart, and she knew they didn’t wish her ill. However ill-timed, the offer was a genuine one, and she could refuse if she chose.

Kaileena did not submit as she had in the brothel, she chose. Daring to make the first move, she drew closer to Ran. They twined around each other, like a symbiosis, with others joining, including Rairakku, then splitting away in pairs, cycling through until a desired partner was found.

In a sense, as the night ran its course, she considered it more a form of worship than the act of mating, and had acted accordingly, joining with her newfound sisterhood in the physical sense as well as the spiritual. She didn’t retire to her yurt when the final frantic, passionate moments expired. Instead, she slept in the soft grass beside the springs with Rairakku, Ran, and the others curled up beside her, warming each other with their communal body heat.

She slept completely and peacefully through the rest of the night and well into the morning.

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