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

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Chapter 13

With Tengu roaming wild and the homunculi guarding his body, his tether to the physical realm, Yokai projected his spirit and lost himself within all that was, floating through the infinite reaches of the Veil as pure energy, growing, learning.

New, forbidden techniques impressed upon him, which would further cement his reign in Teikoku. His victory was assured.

“Are you sure?” a voice whispered, startling him. How? How could a god be surprised?!

“Sadly, you are not yet a god, and there are those who would see you fail.” it continued. Psionic contact. Powerful.

“Who are you?!” Yokai demanded, casting a divination. This intrusion would be severely punished.

“No need. I am right here.” it said, and Yokai found himself face to face with a being almost as vast and unfathomable as the Veil itself, and certainly not belonging to it. It reeked of otherworldliness.

It was not afraid of him, or his power. Being a god meant nothing to a power that so utterly dwarfed the very notion of godliness, “Yokai, come now; is this the greeting I get from you? After all, Tengu would never have come to your aid had I not permitted it.”

“Who...what are you?!” he asked, feeling very, very mortal and insignificant. The being considered him, then, “You may call me Death, or God, if you wish. Names have little meaning to me now. The more important question is this; “why am I here?” Is it not?”

“Answer , then.” Yokai snapped, a terrible suspicion forming in his mind.

“I have a bargain to offer you. One, if enacted, would secure order in Teikoku. That is your desire, is it not?” Death asked, and Yokai couldn’t deny its words outright.

“Good. I’ve asked some like minds to assist you in your conquest of Teikoku. You see, I want to see your power put to use, as it will also benefit my cause. I just ask that, in return for the promise of my aid, that should you indeed fail…I would very much like the possession of your lifeless body. That is all; when you die, your soul drawn into the void by the lethal effects the Eternal Return inflicts upon fragile, mortal minds, I would like your remains. And none in my following will harm Tengu. In fact, I’m feeling generous; Tengu will be able to return unmolested to Moonshadow, the world in which her kin inhabit, when all this is done. What do you say, Yokai? Would you take the chance for greater reward…?”

There was birdsong in the air, and sunlight warming her skin.

Kaileena woke, Ran and Rairakku beside her. After indulging in a period of playful cuddling, they disentangled.

“I thank you for your trust.” Ran said, “It wasn’t misplaced, right?” to which Kaileena smiled, “It wasn’t. Just like you said. Thank you for showing me.”

Rairakku nodded. “Of course, should you return after your journey, I would love for you to meet more of your sisters. If you were willing. I give you another name that you may use here; Shojo Hanasaku. With it, take this necklace, its amber bled from my own branches. Its enchantment will allow you to speak to any of your sisters, and they to you, that you need never feel alone again.” she added, offering a slim chain with links of tarnished brass and many amber charms shaped like flowers. Kaileena accepted the gift with a grateful bow, linking it around her neck, “What does it mean? The name, that is?”

“Think if it as an annulment for your unjust treatment by the people of Teikoku. It means ‘Virgin in Bloom’ for it was in our midst that you experienced your first true act.” Rairakku said, offering a bow of her own.

“Thank you, sister.” Kaileena replied, flustered, looking back over to her kimono, if anything a little hesitant to put it back on. She’d accustomed over the night to this free, vulnerable sensation of nakedness.

“Remember you will always have a place here, Shojo Hanasaku. Now…” Rairakku said, “...your journey presses, and I sense your companions are looking for you.”

“You want to do what now?” Vala asked, Koukatsuna grinning as he paced impatiently, having drunk half a bottle of liquor. He’d removed his brigandine to reveal a most curious tattooing all across his chest, shoulders, and back. It was an elegant pattern, depicting multiple wingless, slithering Dragons, made from ink and some kind of alchemical tonic which had made the pattern not only permanent, but rippling with chromatic brilliance.

A great deal of pain must have been suffered to create such beauty...

“That’s right, I want to spar with you. You honestly got anything better to do?” Koukatsuna asked, flourishing his swords with such practiced ease they whistled through the air. He likely wanted to observe the changes that occurred in both of them; by ingesting the Matriarch’s blood through their respective weapons, they’d inherited new abilities. That was her race’s greatest attribute; with every kill, they grew stronger, and the greater the kill, the greater the influx of new strength.

Koukatsuna’s benefits were obvious; increased physicality, vigor, and reflexes. Vala’s were…admittedly more subtle. She had some idea of their purpose, but much deeper exploration into the nature of Toshisha was required.

“I suppose you’re right. I must wait until the Way-Gate’s unification to prove myself worthy of Surthath any more than I have. Let us begin.” she decided, activating Toshisha, her Blood-Forged whipblade of pale-blue crystal, its inert bone dagger form transforming into a length of serrated segments ending in an elegant, double-edged dagger tip.

Vala entered a sort of dance, spinning and gyrating with her hips and abdomen, the increasing speed of her motions drawing the whipblade higher and higher into the air.

Finally, with sufficient momentum, she whipped Toshisha down, striking the space Koukatsuna had occupied a moment prior and upturning solid stone from the impact.

Seeing the bladedancer crossing through what he must have assumed was her effective range of attack, she forced her weapon to retract several segments, allowing a second horizontal stroke with a more conventional sword-form, that he bodily flipped over when he discovered she’d inexplicably regained a usable field of space to swing.

Other Silkrit gathered to watch the spectacle as Koukatsuna closed in, nearly a hand span from striking range, and she spun her whip around her, extending its segments or creating new ones along the link, forming a long column around her body, ending at the hilt in her hand, resting overhead.

Several heavy swings slammed against her defense, and Vala heard the chipping sounds as his blades did their work, cutting deeper and deeper into Toshisha. Seeing he’d fallen for her ruse, Vala emitted a field of super-cooled vapor in all directions, and he hissed, recoiling.

Retracting her weapon, she thrust it forward in an impaling strike. Koukatsuna ducked under, somersaulted over Toshisha as it instantly retracted and fell back in a downward, diagonal arc. He reversed the grip on his swords, and leaped to her, kicking off the whip as he flew.

With the whip retracted to sword length, Vala parried both incoming strikes, and extended Toshisha back into a whip in order to lash at the bladedancer as he expertly darted away.

She landed a glancing blow, the edges of her weapon cutting his shoulder, and he hissed in discomfort. He ducked under her next strike…and…he vanished!

“Too slow!” he crowed, advancing a few paces in one with a burst of unnatural speed, his twin swords crossing behind her neck. Clever; he used the blind spot created as her whipblade passed over him in order to flank her.

“I guess you win.” Vala said, lowering Toshisha and returning it to its dormant form.

Koukatsuna laughed, slumping over, and Vala turned to see him panting heavily.

“Tough work, being ready for it at a moment’s notice, especially with you pressing me like that. Still, a good parlor trick.” he wheezed, a knee to the floor.

“I’ll be certain to remember that.” Vala replied, eyeing their audience, most of them slack-jawed.

“They haven’t seen anyone last that long against me before…not since Ryū. So…you were a Matriarch?!” he asked, and Vala scowled at him.

“I recall explicitly mentioning it. Your point?” she asked, and he lost his grin.

“Curiosity.” he replied, and Vala sighed, “The other Matriarchs betrayed me-”

“Yes, yes, but why did they betray you? What did they stand to gain?” Koukatsuna interrupted.

Considering whether or not to act on the knowledge granted to her by the death of Uejini, Vala eventually decided to reward his daring, or perhaps arrogance.

“They removed a threat to their power, just as scavengers would attack a larger, fiercer predator. Rather than kill me, they warped my appearance to serve as my shame, forcing me to live in the shape of an Orc; one of the species we enslaved. That’s all you need to know.” She replied, idly toying with her inactive weapon.

“Pretty dumb reason, if you ask me.” Koukatsuna chuckled, “Doesn’t matter; they’ll all be dead soon enough. Besides, that looks better on you anyway; hard to look into someone’s eyes when they’re like a corpse’s. Like that, looks like you have a soul.”

She had no sarcastic retort prepared for that. She simply left the room, troubled.

“What exactly do you want to show us?” Kaileena asked, eyeing the trail warily. They’d been on the move for three hours now, traveling north, and the silence was really starting to bother her.

“What you must do in order to gain the Ancestor Seed. That is all you need to know for now.” Garth replied sardonically, eyeing her, then her pack.

We have said all we need to, he and I. Have no fear, Kaileena.” Arteth whispered to her, in an effort to ease the tension, but that wasn’t what worried her. No matter; she’d decided to pass the time with conversation.

“What was it like…before me?” she asked, under her breath. The others didn’t like it when she was too loud, and she’d earned enough hostile looks already.

It was like a dream, really, from a deep sleep. The kind of dream that stops making sense. I cannot describe it more than that, other than to say it was a lonely place for me in this lamp, before you.

Kaileena nodded sadly, “I know well enough what it means to be alone...but I can’t imagine something like that. I’m glad you found your way to me.”

And I, too, am grateful.” he replied, “I...have come to care for you a great deal, my first and only friend.

Kaileena smiled warmly, squeezing her pack, and returned her attention to the trail.

There… It seemed obscene in such a remote place, but ahead was a building of foreign make, with a triangular roof of bark shingles and walls made of treated logs, cut off at certain points so their tips overlapped one another.

There was a patio area, open to the outside, a well, and a chimney, which belched a steady column of smoke. Its windows were covered from the inside by thick drapes.

Frowning, Kaileena ascended the steps to the front porch after Itaku and Garth, who opened the door, which swiveled on a pair of brass supports bolted to the frame, very unlike the sliding doors of her own people.

There was a curtain behind it, which he also parted, offering the lead to Itaku. Their commander nodded, hand on the pommel of his katana which he’d named Mujihi, a treasured family heirloom.

Ryū had names for his swords too, Hyosho and Kaminari. Even Arteth had named his blade Verlangen, which meant “To Desire”, in his own language.

Kaileena didn’t understand why warriors often did this; her staff didn’t have a name, nor did it need one. It was just a tool.

A blade is more integral to a warrior than a staff is to you, Kaileena.” Arteth noted, returned to his usual stoicism, “In the case of my kind, and certain races, it is because the item in question adopts its own qualities based on its wielder, and is thus technically a living thing. In more mundane cases, it is because the weapon holds specific meaning to its wielder, or has endured enough battle to earn its name.

“Kaileena? Are you coming?” Garth asked, holding the veil open for her, “She doesn’t like the curtain open for long.”

She nodded uncertainly and slipped inside, where she saw Ryū sitting with a cloaked woman before a brick fireplace. The woman lowered her cloak, revealing a pallid face of strange foreign proportions. It was the eyes that got her, though; those red eyes with motes of fire in them. Just like Ryū’s.

“Well, now that we’re all here.” the woman said, rising with an odd bow, “Allow me to introduce myself; you may call me Durethi.”

“Hello, Durethi. I am Kaileena Kazeatari.” She replied uneasily, hand on the door behind her, and the woman smiled darkly, “Aye. Well met, Kaileena, and Commander Itaku of the Karyudo Kisai, and the Dark Lord Dur’Arteth.”

Durethi laughed, “Gods, the irony. But I have my own sins to account for, don’t you doubt. I guess it’s my comeuppance to fight beside the being that turned me, that twisted me against my friends and my people.”

Arteth did not emerge from his lamp, but his presence entered her mind.

I have seen this woman in my dreams.” He projected, and the import was instant.

“You battled the Dreadborne?” Kaileena asked, and Durethi maintained her smile, “Yes. I fought Dur’Arteth and his army of evil. But I am also a vampyre, and therefore, a being of evil. Again, irony.”

“We met with Durethi during our long exodus, for she too was fleeing a land she had no place in. She has been a stalwart ally, with a strength and wisdom that endures though our mortal generations.” Garth explained, and the woman waved him off, pointing to her seat, to which he took without hesitation. She paid him no more heed.

Her eyes were on Ryū now, “It’s been some time since I’ve conversed with someone like me. The other vampyres, even my own Lord Sanguine, were more akin to these Skraul that Ryū speaks of. I thank you for the rare pleasure. So I’ll offer a little something in return; my friend wishes you to rid the Melagonians of the Kami. True enough, I know the source of the beasts, but I have needed great warriors in order to enact my little scheme, and mostly kept it to myself.”

“Of course.” Itaku mused, “It would be too much for one to solve their own problems. But as we are here to ask for one of their relics, it all fits together.”

“Precisely.” Durethi chuckled, “Everything has a price. That is the way of the world. And Surthath, who guides our fates, so enjoys equivalences and contrivances. It’s his way. You have this Yokai, and we have the Kami.”

“And just what are the Kami?” Itaku inquired, to which Durethi merely shrugged, “No idea, but I do know the Kami are the product of something that occurred within the last two or three hundred years. It may have been some manner of cosmic aftershock of the Second Great War, you know, the one silently orchestrated by the Dreadborne.”

She frowned coolly, eyeing Kaileena’s pack, “But I doubt it. The Kami don’t reek of death, especially not Dreadborne; that’s unmistakable where it’s present.”

“What exactly do you need us to do?” Itaku asked, and Durethi walked over to a small wooden cabinet, withdrawing a few items Kaileena couldn’t see, “Simple; we find whatever allows the Kami to resurrect themselves. I’m sure you noticed that their numbers don’t seem to dwindle? Something allows them to recreate their bodies at will. The Kodama tested that theory long ago by placing enchantments upon the Kami they slew; spell tags, allowing them to track where their essences went when killed. Needless to say, when the same tracer spells kept showing up on “living” Kami, it was pretty obvious why. You generally need something big to power something like that; a lost artifact, a confluence of ley-lines, portals, something. So we go in, we find it, we use it if we can and destroy it if we can’t. I spoke with Ryū in regards to this and he suspects whatever magicka is animating the Kami was mentioned in a promise that a Djinn or perhaps even Surthath himself had made to him.”

Ryū nodded, legs crossed atop his seat, “He said that you, Kaileena, would lead me to a way to save my people. My blades are unique to my kind. In addition to their powers, they can absorb the life energy of both myself and those who are cut by them. They, like me, are vampyric, and I suspect if this source of the Kami is a physical thing, I can consume it and use its power.”

“I have something to add to this.” Arteth said, emerging from the lamp in her pack, “If a mortal enchanter created the font of the Kami’s power, then it is power that mortals can rightfully wield. Ryū will suffer no ill effects if he absorbs it, unlike the Eternal Return, which would ultimately kill him. However, I am unsure if it would be enough power for the task he requires.”

“True enough, but I cannot leave that to chance.” Ryū said, “If the opening occurs, I will take it without hesitation.”

“Of course.” Arteth conceded, “Durethi…there is something I wish to ask you.”

She wrinkled her nose distastefully, but motioned for him to proceed. “You’re the only one here who saw Augur after…after all my other self had done. Did it begin to recover, before you left?” he asked, his voice nakedly pleading. Kaileena had never seen him so desperate.

Durethi smiled, though there was a deep sadness in it, “The scars were deep, but yes, the land was healing when last I saw it. By now the War of the Dreadborne would be little more than a memory, at least to all but the El’Dari. Since the Pirate Lords integrated in Nassam or came to Teikoku after the destruction of Lord Nutaku and his fleet, and the Ogres of Sottarfar were peacefully colonizing the Northern Tundra, leagues away from any other civilization, there was no force in all of Aurora to cause war or unrest. Better than it’d been in centuries, in my opinion at least.”

Arteth nodded, downcast, “There is that, at least.”

There was an awkward silence for a time, as he retreated back into the lamp.

“There were many things I expected when Garth had come to me the other night. Dur’Arteth, two of them now, one a god, one within striking distance. Tempting just to make assumptions.” Durethi said, “But I see things aren’t as they seem; I doubt the Dur’Arteth I fought would consider this. He seems his own man, so to speak.”

Kaileena nodded, “I knew what they said of him couldn’t have been true.”

“You know, you remind me of someone I once new, Kaileena.” Durethi said, studying her with those disarming red eyes, “Still, you aren’t quite as smug as Kuri, and all the better.”

Kaileena was unsure of how to reply.

“Err, thank you.” she finally managed, and Arteth seemed amused by the comment.

“In any case we have our goal, and due to mine and Ryū’s ‘conditions’, we will wait until nightfall. In the meantime, the tea should be ready by now, and I saved a store of tobacco and a little of the better stuff some time ago when I traded with your people, Itaku. Ought to be worth a try.”

“Ugh, how disgusting.” Kaileena cursed, unable to hurry out of the cabin fast enough, and likewise unable to hold back a fit of coughing.

I imagine the body’s tolerance to the substance builds over time. Itaku didn’t seem overly troubled.” Arteth replied, and she supposed that was probably the case. Still, that didn’t make the prospect of breathing smoke any less foolish.

Kaileena brushed at her clothing, trying to clear the stench, even knowing it would take days to clear. Saving her strength for battle, she could no longer expend the energy to clean her clothes often, and on top of things, she’d run out of lilac scent!

Still, now that she was away from the fumes, Kaileena could admire the view from the cabin’s patio. There was a small stream visible in the distance, with a depression filled with loose dirt and rocks, maybe even a few pieces of quartz. Which gave her an idea.

“Are there any crystals nearby that can be filled with magicka?” she asked, and Arteth focused his willpower into something that he described as akin to a passive divination, which allowed him to perceive essential truths, “There is a thumb-sized chunk of malachite along that very stream, eighty paces forward and on the edge of the low grass…as well as….a dollop of opal, one hundred and twenty seven paces in the same direction. Prioritize that item, as the mineral can be more potently imbued.”

Kaileena set herself to the chase, counting her footsteps as she followed the stream.

In spite of its distance from her home, and the bamboo forest which stood between it, the locale reminded her very much of her father’s land. Both of them, actually, for both had lived within the same part of Central District.

“I miss them. All of them.” Kaileena said mournfully, but Arteth was there for her, “You may see Gatsuyu or Hana again, perhaps even as soon as the completion of this task.

“I’m not sure that would be best for either of them.” she replied, her voice hoarse, “How can I go back with Father gone? How can I look into my brother’s eyes, knowing it was my fault?

Kaileena..." Arteth replied, cautious, but she cut him off, eyes watering. Everything pressed upon her at once, and she would hear none of it, “Father brought me in as a newborn, raised me, cared for me. Took every bit of abuse the village gave him, gave us. He didn’t owe me anything! And they killed him for trying to protect me! They killed him! He gave me everything; my life, my family, and I repaid him in death. Had I declined the hunt that day, had I evaded the pirates, had I-"

Enough, Kaileena!" Arteth roared, emerging from the lamp, eyes red with anger, “Fate is cruel. I know this better than anyone. You could have done this or you could have done that, but what happened, happened. Do not lessen his death by refusing to live because of misplaced guilt. That your adoptive father loved you I do not doubt, and the same goes for Gatsuyu and Hana. I’m sure they’d like to see you again.”

Kaileena leaned on a tree, trying to hear the wisdom of her familiar. But it was too much; reopening that particular scab had run its course. She slid down to the ground, and wept, and Arteth kept a silent vigil, uncomplaining. Her guardian. Her friend.

Koukatsuna found his new chambers in Baleblood only with great difficulty. Not like he needed to be careful, though, since all the rooms were safe. Indeed; Silkrit had been pouring in from all directions with news of their new capital and the exodus of the Skraul, and most rooms were occupied. Pretty soon, they were all going to have to bunk up...and begin building their community again. Making families.

A couple passed by his doorway, their body language leaving no ambiguity to their intention of repopulating the world as soon and as enthusiastically as possible.

All the better, he supposed in his drunken stupor, head swimming pleasantly. He’d never known his parents, and certainly hadn’t much thought of becoming one himself. Didn’t think he had it in him, raised as a fighter and all. Spending your youth cutting Karu and wild beasts into chutney didn’t condition one to be a father.

“Maybe I’ll go and find more drink.” he decided, melancholy and wanting to snuff it quickly, but his feet didn’t seem to obey him. Maybe not.

He managed, with supreme effort and grace, to push open the door, aim for the bed, and land four feet away, face to the floor, nostrils puffing up dust.

“Shitting Skraul.” he cursed, then laughed. Bit of a misnomer, that; Skraul didn’t shit. He twisted onto his side, and decided he’d sleep right where he lay.

A cleared throat brought his eyes up to Vala, looking at him curiously from the doorway.

“No snappy retort?” he replied, and she laughed, “I was wondering if you were interested in...other diversions, besides sparring. But you look a little out of it, so perhaps another time.”

With that, she left, an amused grin on her face, and Koukatsuna put all his effort into being able to remember this conversation in the morning. Definitely wanted to hit her up on that. Maybe if he just rested his eyes, he figured, he might feel better, good enough to-

When her grief finally ran its course, Kaileena stood, feeling a great weight lessened, if not gone completely. Remembering Arteth’s suggested places to look for useful crystals and gems, she continued down the trail, thinking.

Though there was still blame she felt towards herself, upon reflection she understood the unrealistic, self-centered aspect of her guilt. She couldn’t blame herself for everything that went wrong any more than she could reward herself for everything that went right. It didn’t make her feel better, though.

She missed him, and Lenao, terribly, but her greatest regret now was never knowing her mother. That was perhaps the cruelest thing, for knowing Shinabi, she would cherish him, remember him forever, as would Gatsuyu. She’d been given a few hours to speak with her birth father, and would remember him as well.

But there was no face, no voice, no touch, to remind her of her mother...

That is a pain I cannot protect you from, Little Fox.” Arteth said, solemnly.

Speaking of which.” he added, “Something’s been bothering me, especially with my store of knowledge on the matter of the Eternal Return. The Karyudo Kisai need you to help them bypass the defenses in Yokai’s sanctum…and do not mistake my sentiment. You’re coming to be very powerful in a very short time. In just a century or so of honing your craft I severely doubt any wizard or enchanter save a Djinn will be able to challenge you. However, you understand the risk involved in facing Yokai, not even the battle itself?

With the power of the Eternal Return running through his body, Yokai has doomed himself. Humans, mortals...they aren’t meant to wield such power, and violating the pact which prevents such an occurrence bears only one inevitable consequence; death. And you, with your Spell-Eater Strain, could unwittingly absorb some of this energy, and I’m unsure if I can protect you if this happens. A direct confrontation with him could very well kill you by contact alone.

“I understand, Arteth.” Kaileena replied, “Unless I have no other option, I will avoid him. The Karyudo Kisai are trained to deal with powerful enchanters. Set against one man…I’m sure they won’t need me.”

Kaileena kept a mental count of her steps, and following her familiar’s instructions she rolled up one of the sleeves of her Kimono and submerged her hand into the mud. He’d failed to mention the depth of the opal, but after a few blind moments of digging, she felt a few solid objects and grabbed them. Pulling the items free, Kaileena dipped the stones in the stream, cleaning them of mud, but frowned, as all she found were plain igneous stones, three of which were granite; a common type formed from ancient, cooled magma.

You were close. Try again.” Arteth projected, and she dug in again with a sigh, feeling around for more stones. With a second handful’s worth, she repeated the process, and noted with a smile a roughly trapezoidal, white-blue mineral with spots of other colors all throughout.

“Beautiful.” Kaileena gasped, mesmerized by its luster.

It seems well developed for such an irregular formation. It must have been dropped by some wandering traveler.” Arteth mused, and Kaileena started looking for the malachite.

“I take it the important talk is over?” Maki said, startling her, “Or is it because they wished for you to leave while they went over the…important talk?”

“Why are you here?” Kaileena asked dryly, frowning at his stained teeth and that cold, predatory look in his eyes, “Please, I jest. You know, since Itaku deputized you you’re technically one of us. No need to be so tense.”

“Sorry. You just remind me of someone.” Kaileena said, offering a slightly apologetic tone and a shallow bow. He nodded, “Yes, I read your dossier; some trouble with pirates. You know, I never liked any of them, and sometimes, when no one’s looking, some of the more troublesome ones…disappear.

“And you think that knowledge pleases me?” Kaileena asked, considering whether or not to return to the cabin, “Again, I ask; why are you here?”

Maki sighed, deflating, “Fine, you caught me red handed; I wanted to glean something about what Itaku intends to do next. It caused quite a clamor when he ordered me to prepare the men to attack the camp.”

He speaks truth.” Arteth advised, “But I cannot say what he might be withholding in his apparent truthfulness.

“Kami, Kodama, Silkrit, Kamiyonanayo…and what else? You’ll forgive me if I find myself a little unmoored and itching for answers.” Maki prodded, more aggressively, and Kaileena finally succumbed, “We seek to deal with the Kami, the Melagonians will give us the seed, and we use the seed to stop Yokai. Is there anything more you need to know?”

Maki noted her growing distrust, and scowled, “I would know where they keep this seed, just in case they fail to hold their end of the bargain. I would know exactly how they intend to use it, and even more, why we are bothering with this roundabout course for some trinket when you can get us through Yokai’s defenses! Do you even know why this is? Here we sit, at the other end of the country, questing for magickal playthings at the word of an enchanter, while another enchanter consolidates his power! That, little girl, is the source of my unease!”

If he acts rashly, I will intervene.” Arteth projected, “Stand your ground. He needs to know who leads, and who follows.

“Your concerns have been noted. Now leave me.” Kaileena snapped, “Or perhaps you would find better resolution for your concerns with Commander Itaku…or, dare I say, Garth, for he would certainly want to know of your intention to steal his people’s relic should we fail.”

Maki snarled, but his kusarigama hung limply from one hand, “You do have some mettle in you after all. Fine, I’ll return to camp. Just try to keep an open mind, and not just follow blindly. That might be what others want for you, but do you trust others with your life? The answer may surprise.”

He turned on his heels, and Kaileena stood there, alone again, wondering.

My apologies, Kaileena; I couldn’t sense him from the lamp. When I’m connected to your body like this I can only see and hear what you do.” Arteth said, and Kaileena shook her hand dismissively, “No, it’s alright. Now I know he at least has a shred of humanity in him. He can be afraid.”

Yokai didn’t see the intruders approach his tower, but knew them to be there.

Connected to the forces that be, his physical body held little appeal at that moment, so instead he opted to view them from afar. They were Renmei Keiji, servants of the being that called himself Death.

Yokai reluctantly opened a breach in the tower’s defenses, allowing them to slip through.

You may meet me in the inner sanctum, if that is your wish.” he projected telepathically to their leader, then returned to his body. It didn’t take long for them to arrive.

“Greetings, friend Yokai, I am-”

“Don’Yoku, High Priest of the Renmei Keiji Cult under Dur’Artoth the Dread Hammer.” Yokai interrupted, “You are here to serve me?”

The old man bristled, “So long as my master wills it, yes.”

Yokai smiled, channeling the smallest fraction of his power and filling the room with energy, “Perhaps I am dissatisfied with that answer, and will kill you outright for anything shy of swearing total allegiance to me.”

Don’Yoku's stare was unwavering, “Death comes for us all. I fear not my end, as it is inevitable. Do what you will.”

There was no hesitation, no fear. Yokai believed him, and smiled, impressed, “I have but one task for you, one that must be completed before my completion of the Eternal Return. Should you fail to do this before I reach true godhood I will have no use for you, and while your lord has aided me that doesn’t mean I owe him the loyalty of sparing you. There will be no place for you in my new Teikoku.”

Yokai knew their hearts, and would feel no guilt in such an act. Theirs was a faith of faithlessness, where one’s only purpose was self-destruction. They worshiped death, not just as Dur’Artoth but the very idea of death.

He shivered, disquieted. “You will find the alien enchanter Kaileena Kazeatari and the Karyudo Kisai she follows. Kill them all. The Dragon Tengu will assist you.” he said, silently conveying his wishes to his dearest ally.

She returned her displeasure at fighting alongside agents of the Dread Hammer, confirming Yokai’s suspicions as to exactly what had botched his first attempt to summon her, and with that in mind he also included silently to her, “When they are dead, you are to kill Don’Yoku and his followers.

That certainly perked her up.

“Well…what do you make of that?” Kiromichi asked, his humor dampened by the entire fleet baring down on them.

“It looks like my rivals decided on a last stand, sending everything they have. Strange.” Arainami replied, hands in her coat. She was as tense as he was, but laughed, “Bah! They have come to their deaths. With the device on our vessel, their superior numbers will mean little.”

“And if it’s tampered with by more saboteurs?” he asked. “Please; did we not purge a third of the crew for even minor suspicions? I think it’s safe to say that the only threats are those outside of the ship.” Arainami replied, referring to an unfortunate incident that had delayed them, and in turn allowed their enemies to gather in force, “First Mate, see to the long guns, and full speed ahead. Let’s wrap this up quickly”.

“So, when you’re anointed the Pirate Queen, what exactly do you plan on doing then?” he asked, more than merely curious.

With her forces riled up by a victory, an invasion of Teikoku seemed the next logical step.

“I gave it careful consideration myself. It seems like my people lost their purpose in the exodus from our homeland. It wasn’t from lack of warfare; we aren’t monsters, at least not most of us. It wasn’t poverty; your Hitorigami gave us much in return for our weaponry and technology. I think it’s that we’ve lived off a fleet of ships over a century old, and a cluster of islands that can only hold about a sixth of us comfortably. Our status as refugees must end with the lives of the other two lords.” Arainami replied, eyeing the enemy and their distance from them, rapidly diminishing, “We need a new land, one that we may truly call our own. And it isn’t Teikoku, so you can stop worrying.”

“Worry? Not at all.” Kiromichi replied, “I was just wondering if I was to be forced to cut you down in the near future. Now I know I will likely not.”

“More likely you wouldn’t have managed to close within twenty paces.” Arainami replied, “But now isn’t the time for this; we have an enemy to send to the depths in our stead.”

Don’Yoku smiled, having sealed a very unique artifact within Yokai’s tower. With his god clouding Yokai’s sight it’d been all too easy.

The arcane tap would not only siphon energy away from the Eternal Return, it would also lengthen the process for which Yokai imbued himself with power, ensuring that he wouldn’t be aware of the leak of energy until the Way-Gates were already opened.

A man who thought himself a god… Don’Yoku almost envied him his arrogance. The only true god was Dur’Artoth.

His fellow Renmei Keiji circled around a shard of darksteel, beseeching the One True God for divine aid; a spell that would allow them to seek Yokai’s assassins and speed their own pursuit with a teleportation.

We who witness the end rejoice, for madness ends with it. Guide our steps, dearest one. Show us the way.” the High Priest whispered, and felt himself and his fellows forced through shifts in space, appearing in short jumps between several leagues every few seconds, drawn closer and closer to those who would soon join God in the void.

Durethi led her, Ryū, Garth, Golem, and the Karyudo Kisai west.

Watch your footing, there will be a pitfall ahead. Use the fallen log.” Arteth whispered, and silently motioning to it, her friends and allies noted it, bypassing an irritating hindrance.

Kaileena sent her gratitude, and idly gripped the two stones she’d found earlier, now charged with magicka by Golem’s reserves. Apparently, her father Lenao had often used the construct as a metaphysical battery during extended magickal experimentation.

Ryū crept beside her, not allowing more than five paces to separate them. Try as she might, Kaileena couldn’t quite shake the uneasy feeling his unnaturally graceful and fluid movements provoked in her; it was like watching a wolf when you knew it was hunting.

Can you hear me?” Ryū’s voice echoed in her mind, and she nearly jumped with surprise.

Yes, we can hear you.” Arteth answered for her, “I was not aware you had telepathic capabilities.

Neither did I. My...well, I just had the impulse to try.” The vampyre replied, hands on the pommels of his silvery wakizashi as he walked.

How long had it been so far? Under the thick canopy it was nearly impossible to note the passing of heavenly bodies. There was snow, not much, as it had to drift through the roof of the forest, but back in Teikoku proper…

Durethi mentioned a cavern, and a deep one at that. Something called the Underworld, and that she’d traversed such places before.” Ryū whispered in her mind.

Was there something else?” Kaileena asked, sensing he was still there, “Yes. You are tasked with killing an enchanter named Yokai, but you cannot use his power because it would kill you. I would have you take the power we seek now with the Kami, power enough perhaps to send you home, and I can claim the Eternal Return. Like Garth, I too have lived long, but where his life was hardship, mine was misery. If I can eradicate the Skraul I will have expended my purpose, and could then die peacefully. It seems to make sense.

Ryū…dying is never the answer, you owe it to whoever died to live your life, no matter what. I’m sure there will be a cure for your condition; you could-

Start anew, take a mate, and help rebuild my shattered world? It sounds storybook, but I know my fate isn’t meant to be a fable. I died, Kaileena. I do not live...I merely capitalize on borrowed time. I was never meant to survive this.

She met his gaze, and Ryū’s eyes held nothing but sadness, “This is what I want, Kaileena. But you, you are still so young, a long life before you. Find your way to where you belong, where Arteth belongs. I will die content knowing that our people will be free. My soul will rest easy.

The others were now privy of their telepathic conversation, if not its contents, “Give it some thought. If no one can seize the Kami’s power, it won’t be an issue. Just be ready one way or another. That’s all I ask.

Kaileena nodded, and felt the connection weaken, and all she had for company now were her own thoughts.

“We’re close. The cave is just up ahead.” Durethi whispered, drawing a double-edged sword of unusual design; thicker, wider, and shorter than a katana. With an ebony hilt and a spherical pommel, the guard was small, almost nonexistent. The gold inlay of the weapon was bright against the rest of it, which was pitch black and slightly reflective, like volcanic glass.

“A gladius.” she explained to her bewildered expression, “Good for thrusting, but with the material being darksteel it’s a natural cutter, too.”

Kaileena eyed the “cavern”, more a tear in the ground, really; five paces wide and six across. The opening was entirely horizontal, like a natural vent. As the nest of the Kami she would have expected it to expel malevolent energy or something, but it was just a hole.

Most of the Karyudo Kisai fanned out, creating a defensive perimeter. Durethi and Maki fumbled with something coiled in wrapped cord, and Kaileena winced as she identified them as grapple hooks.

She didn’t mind, in fact, even enjoyed, climbing trees...but delving deep into the ground, with a hundred thousand tons of rock over her head, didn’t sound appealing at all.

No need to worry. I can maintain levitation for you for a limited time. Just think of it like spelunking. You’ll forget all about the rest.” Arteth projected, his enthusiasm souring her mood further.

“I’m thankful the Kami haven’t attacked yet. Perhaps they are wary after the last confrontation.” Durethi suggested, and Ryū nodded, “Or perhaps they wait for us to be vulnerable; some on the surface, some on the rope leading down, and the rest in the cavern.”

Nodding agreement, Itaku motioned Kaileena over, “We will be the last to go; you, then me. I trust you to help keep the ropes and the men using them secure.”

Kaileena smiled, albeit uneasily, as hooks were embedded just outside of the rocky lip of the cavern, pounded in with small hammers for good measure.

Ryū pulled something out of his pack, and whispered to Itaku. Words passed between them, and he began to manipulate the item he was holding, and it began to…glow… Kaileena walked around to get a better look, and saw a small orb, made of glass and filled with glowing fluid. She gasped as she also saw Ryū’s flesh blister and smoke.

He tossed the item into the darkness, unmindful, and it exploded into light, mapping out the reaches below, revealing a plethora of connecting tunnels. The orb landed on a basin a long way down, but didn’t quite make it to the bottom.

“Curse my aim.” Ryū swore, eyeing the cavern and not his burned hands. As Kaileena walked over to him, he shook her off, motioning to something else in his pack.

“I had the chance to bite a Skraul not long ago, and I saved some of his blood.” He explained, taking a draught from a small painted flask made out of some manner of ceramic material. She nodded, and looked back to Durethi, testing the implements to ensure secure placement. She was first to scale the line, followed by Maki.

The rope led straight into the darkness, but Maki recovered the orb, and tossed it down the central shaft. Seconds passed, and Kaileena could only wonder if the drop had an end at all. There. Almost a quarter-league down. Kaileena crossed her arms and shivered.

She was not happy about this at all.

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