“Well played, truly. A masterful counter.” Dur’Artoth mused, watching as the slate-grey wizard piece retreated from the battle, removed by Surthath’s sapphire-chalcedony wizard piece, “You really think to make something out of my droppings? And this…girl child? How pitiful. I tire of this. I think it’s time we made it interesting again.”
New pieces appeared on the board, at the back of a wall of Skraul and mortal humanoid pieces; several tentacle masses, denoting the last few R’yzthaek generals in Dur’Artoth’s service, as well as a great sphere with deep fissures along its obsidian surface. The shattered realm of Darkmoor.
Behind it all there was a single dominating piece; a four horned visage.
“Your own hegemony?” Surthath gasped, not believing he would act so rashly at such an early stage of the game. In doing this, in making this wager, Dur’Artoth risked his immortality and the entirety of his newfound powers. If he lost, he would perish as surely as his predecessor.
“Come now; we both knew where this would end.” Dur’Artoth chided, “We’ve been feuding since Argosaxx, you and I. One cannot exist alongside the other. Sooner or later, one of us was bound to fall.”
Arainami eyed her ally as he took aim, engaged in a very rare state of absolute focus.
Both the enemy leviathans kept their current course, but some of the smaller vessels broke off to engage. So it wasn’t a mass retreat; they were bidding for time, but time to do what exactly? This was the entirety of their fleet, and not one of the other lords of Teikoku would intervene with their own. They couldn’t, as all the supplies for such went to Kiromichi; cannons, ammunition, and the vast majority of the nation’s lumber.
They were waiting for something, but she could only guess as to what.
“They must be mad.” Arainami concluded, “Or deluded. There’s just no other explanation.”
“Load the guns, but save the ballistae for the flagship.” Kiromichi yelled, and it irritated her, not that he’d ordered her men, but that they’d followed his command without hesitation. There would be a time for that later…
“Right through, then turn to fire. Aim low.” She ordered over the wind, “I want examples to make of their crew when we return to port.”
The schooner effortlessly angled around two caravels as they attempted to flank, its superior speed capable of running circles around the larger, bulkier, craft.
Kiromichi fired once, and while she had no spyglass to confirm, she imagined one of the sailors clutching a bloody chest and collapsing. Brilliant, really; it didn’t aid morale to see your fellows dropping far out of range of any sane gunman.
The enemy caravels tried to find the proper angle to fire without risk of hitting each other, but her men were too skilled to be caught in the water like that. As they passed by, Kiromichi fired again, and she clearly saw a rifleman fall off the railing and into the water.
With a gesture of her hand, three of the mortars went off as they circled round, one of the white phosphorous rounds landing harmlessly in the sea. Two however struck the mast of one ship, incinerating deckhands and hopefully melting some of their cannons into butter. Their artillery, functioning less for distance and more like a very large rifle, fired low, and the caravel momentarily disappeared in a cloud of smoke and splinters, its stern already dipping into the ocean. Dead in the water.
The second ship no doubt saw how outmatched it was, and with no other option it angled tightly near the rear of the vessel, using the current inside the schooner’s trajectory to make the distance, either to board or to ram them outright.
Kiromichi, anticipating the desperate move, landed another shot, expertly placed, for it hit a cannon loader, preventing one of the two shots taken at her vessel as the distance closed. The other hit, but it was a grazing shot, doing little more than scraping the side.
“They damaged the paint. Good for them!” Arainami laughed derisively, “Bring it to me.”
A deckhand, the first mate, nodded and turned away, and Lord Kiromichi arched an eyebrow, “We’re going to board?”
Arainami smiled right back, and even he blanched as her first mate handed her a satchel charge.
“Let them get to ramming distance!” she ordered, walking behind the wheel, Kiromichi following close behind. The enemy caravel was a bowshot or two off, and continued to close on them.
The men pulled at the sails, partially folding them and cutting off the flow of wind. They began to slow, the caravel in close pursuit.
“You know it’ll have to be near detonation for this to work…” Kiromichi said uneasily, as she started manipulating the dial that would set it off.
Twin-chambered thermite charge; like an hourglass, the upper half filled with thermite, naphthenic acid, and palmitic acid, the smaller, lower chamber containing black powder as the ignition base. Serving as the outer shell was a thin iron tube with a copper band at the base, attached to a small clockwork mechanism that generated friction.
Depending on what speed the gear-mechanism was set to, the copper band would begin to heat up at a particular rate, igniting the black powder, which would then ignite the other ingredients in a massive sublimation of heat and pressure that could, and would, ignite oxygen.
Easy to make, deadlier than nitro-glycerin. A truly devious weapon…
“Reduce speed; we want to make it easy for them!” she yelled, twisting the mechanism again and again, reducing the time to ignite the black powder, then the napalm. The Caravel was well within a bowshot now.
Two minutes…one minute…
“I do believe I misjudged you; you are downright mad, after all.” Lord Kiromichi gasped. A stone throw away, the enemy opened fire on them with small arms, and she had to duck as she turned the dial, careful to note its time.
Forty five seconds…thirty seconds…
The enemy closed in, and even the poor fellow behind the wheel turned to watch, paling. The nose of the caravel nearly touched their stern.
“Now! Increase speed!” she roared, throwing the bomb overhand, up onto the deck of the caravel. The schooner’s sails reopened in full, and they rocketed away as every man not holding the rigging got pushed to ground.
Arainami put her hand over her eyes and flinched, as a wave of heat seared her face, drying the sea spray. Lowering it, she smiled, as she saw a fireball instead of a ship. If there were screams, they were drowned out by the inferno as the sails went up, as the deck blackened, as its iron skeleton bent inward, taking on water. A good start.
Arainami eyed the enemy leviathan, which had gained distance during the exchange, and grinned fiercely. A good start to a long, long day.
As they neared the ropes, Maki was nowhere in sight, nor were the other men. Itaku paled; Karyudo Kisai didn’t abandon their task. The either fled, or...
“We should have brought them with us.” he noted, to which Durethi shook her head, “Due stealth was needed. A large group-”
“We were discovered anyway, so what was the point?! You two!” he snapped, motioning to Durethi and Ryū, “Scale up and make a perimeter. Kaileena, can you levitate just the three of us; you, me, and Golem?”
“Arteth can.” The girl replied, closing her eyes. Though he fully expected it, Itaku tensed as his feet left the ground, feeling lighter than air.
They passed quickly from dismal cave to open soil, blinded even by the evening gloom. He drew Mujihi, the blade of his ancestors, activating its enchantment. Through his heightened speed, he scanned the canopy, expectant.
The sound of displaced wind returned, grew louder. Itaku, a seasoned warrior of many years of experience, unashamedly broke into cold sweat as a great pillar of shimmering scales blotted out the rising sun. He’d read enough of Yokai’s dossier to know of this creature; Tengu, the great Dragon…
Kaileena, having found herself again in her element, attempted to communicate with her sisterhood, knowing the Kodama would help them now that the Kami couldn’t threaten the camp in their absence.
“Rairakku.” she projected, holding one of the amber charms of her necklace, “I need your help.”
“There are none here save myself, little girl.” a voice replied, deathly calm and decidedly male, “But I am here for you nonetheless.”
The colors around her lost their luster, muted to shades of grey. The others vanished, even Golem, who’d been right beside her. She was alone…
“Never.” Arteth whispered, as seven men appeared before her, cloaked in black. Their faces were hidden by iron masks, blank and featureless, completely covering their eyes.
“I know you are afraid.” he said, “There is so much to be afraid of, after all.”
As one, they began to chant, and the air about them shimmered with magicka, “But what do you fear most of all, little creature?”
Her thoughts betrayed her, for the Colossus emerged from their midst in all his terrible splendor, towering over her. But before, armored, he’d at least looked passable for a man. But now, in place of his head, his single, burning eye shone clearly from a blank, emotionless mass of iron. His hands, now grasping claws, reached out for her, as an additional pair burst from his breastplate, one wielding his kanabo, the other a menagerie of feelers and tentacles glowing a bright, ethereal blue.
She saw Sado’s face emerge from its chest, laughing maniacally and crying, “Legion! Legion! Legion!”
“Be still.” Arteth whispered, close, “It’s just an illusion. It isn’t real.”
Kaileena backed away, brandishing her staff, her heart in her throat.
“It isn’t real, Kaileena.” Arteth persisted, “Say it.”
“It isn’t real.” Kaileena moaned, clamping her eyes shut, “It isn’t real. It isn’t real.”
“But it is real, Kaileena.” Sado said, forcing them open, standing beside her now in his natural, Kodama form. His skin was pale, so pale, though, and plunged through his chest was the fanged sword Verlangen, “Why did you kill me, Kaileena? Why didn’t you try to save me?”
“Stop it, Kaileena.” Arteth said, “This isn’t real. You have to fight it.”
Then suddenly it wasn’t Sado but her father Shinabi, a thin red line across his throat, which widened as his head teetered uncertainly from his neck.
“Why didn’t you try to save me?” he asked, as his head plummeted from his shoulders, “Was I not worth the effort? I loved you, and this is how you repay me?”
“No!” she cried, “Stop it!”
The Colossus stood over her, his kanabo raised to strike. But Kaileena, confronted with what she feared most, knew they’d erred in showing her Father. With all that pain there was anger, and opening that old scar brought her back to reality as nothing else could.
She cast an enchantment, which propelled those behind the Colossus with an expanding field of telekinetic force. The apparitions winked out of being, and she hissed, furious.
“How dare you use that against me!” Kaileena snapped, “I don’t know who you are, but I’ll make you scream apologies!”
They found their feet quickly. One laughed; the one who’d spoken to her.
“Your will is strong. I will enjoy breaking it. Come to me.” he said, outstretching a hand while drawing a steel club with his other.
“Why are you doing this?” Kaileena asked, backing away slowly, not to flee but to put herself at an angle that would make it difficult for them to flank her. Itaku had shown her that an enemy would try to attack from the sides, so a warrior would try to put themselves where a barrier like a tree or wall protected one or more of those sides. With a tree at her right flank, she could swing unhindered with her left hand leading, and not be exposed in the process.
“No spells; this one can use them to her advantage.” he said, and his fellows advanced on her, drawing the same kind of peculiar clubs.
As one black-robed man lunged, she struck him in the knee with a cone of concentrated telekinetic force. At least three bones were fractured by the effort, and he collapsed, not dead or even defeated but taken out of the fight regardless.
A second came in, and she targeted his skull with her staff, striking him with enough force to cause a severe concussion. A third was upon her, and she was just able to bring her staff up to block, fortifying her slight frame with a telekinetic exoskeleton that lasted only moments.
Out went the last of her stored magicka in a final spell, and he squeezed his legs together as his genitals ruptured from the inside. She cracked him over the head for good measure.
Two more came in at once, and all Kaileena could do was scale the nearest tree, seeking refuge in its canopy while she began to draw upon her life energy instead.
“Pitiful. All of you.” their leader rasped, “Die.”
Kaileena went limp, plummeting through air to hard earth, and couldn’t breathe…couldn’t move.
“You feel now that this cannot be happening.” he said, cold and emotionless, “You think that you have a destiny ahead of you. The promise of adventure and comfort and love. But fate does not exist. There is only chaos, and for you, there is only death.”
She couldn’t see…she couldn’t feel. It was cold. So cold…
He extended his hand to touch her, and she heard Arteth screaming as the darkness blanketed her.
Don’Yoku reached down to touch the child and complete his spell, which manifested naturally to stop her heart, thereby bypassing her absorption effect.
“The Dread Hammer take your soul.” he whispered.
Something shifted in the air.
He looked up, startled, and saw a Djinn of Surthath, standing but two paces from him. It held a sword with two conjoined blades and wore a red war-kilt, a length of thick smoke like an umbilicus connecting its naval to something in the child’s pack.
“Her life will not end this day.” the Djinn snarled, swinging the blade in an executioner’s grip. Impossibly fast, it cut down a fellow cultist before Don’Yoku could even react, and a second as he pointed his finger and discharged a potent death spell. The Djinn grabbed his last ally and interposed her into the path of his hand, and she screamed, then went limp.
Don’Yoku brought his mace up in time to parry an incoming strike, which, given the creature’s girth, should have knocked him down, but instead merely doubled him over. The creature reversed its grip, much faster than he would have imagined possible, and a flash of pain blurred his sight. He could see, however, a finger tumbling through the air. One of his.
The Djinn barked a counterspell, to imperil the magicka holding them in the Faded Veil and away from the child’s allies.
His field of translocation broke apart, and color returned as they rematerialized in the waking world, to the chaos of battle around them. The child’s companions were battling the Dragon.
“You!” it roared, “Death-Worshipper! You’re mine!” and his personal wards activated in time to withstand a bombardment of lightning strikes. The Djinn staggered beside him, but instead of advancing, it scooped the girl-child up in his arms and spread his wings to take flight.
Don’Yoku couldn’t pursue, his wards holding him in place to maintain their energies; if he even moved, the Dragon’s attacks would overwhelm him.
“This is not over.” the Djinn promised, and answering his scowl with one of his own, he watched as the Djinn spirited his target away.
Damn you, Tengu. Damn you, Yokai!
“No. Not over in the slightest.” Don’Yoku replied vehemently, reverting to shadow form and sinking into the ground itself, claiming the corpses of the fallen as his own. He hoped they had suffered in death, for they had been useless in life.
Ryū hurled himself towards the Dragon, careful to avoid the painful pinpricks of light penetrating the forest canopy.
Kaminari flared white and discharged a bolt of electricity, which upset the bioelectric currents throughout the creature’s body and caused it to spasm, descending a stone’s throw before regaining control of its faculties. Ryū struck again, and again, forcing the beast to ground.
The Dragon, sensing his intentions, whipped its tail, its long, serpentine body coiling to build momentum. Ryū dashed up the nearest tree, and leaped to the next as the space he’d previously occupied was buried in scales and splinters.
“Kaminari!” he cried, forcing another jolt up the Dragon’s tail to the rest of its body, and the back half of it touched ground, its legs thrashing wildly. Itaku was already upon it, impossibly fast, but when his katana struck the glistening, amethyst-colored scales of the Dragon’s back, the weapon rebounded harmlessly.
The Dragon ignored him, but opened its mouth, gathering its killing breath. Ryū thought quickly and dived down, back into the cavern. When a surge of light and heat with the intensity of a midday sun passed, he dared peek out.
His nails dug into the uneven rock wall, and Ryū propelled himself back to the surface, leaping several bounds onto the Dragon’s shoulder, driving both ends of his wakizashi into the softer scales under its throat. With all his strength, he still barely got them to point depth; even such a delicate spot was harder than any armor he’d ever encountered.
The head of the Dragon bent much further than he would have imagined possible, and he dropped down to avoid being caught in its massive jaws. Even with his ability to regenerate, he held no illusions about what those rows of teeth would do to him.
The Dragon caught him mid-air with its claw, if only with a passing swipe, and sent him careering into a tree, and then another, and then another…
“Where…where am I?” Kaileena groaned, dizzy and weak.
“I have done all I can.” Arteth whispered over her, and Kaileena brushed her hand against something soft; skin, “Rest for a while, and you will survive. I cannot maintain this body any longer. I return to the lamp.”
Rolling onto her belly with a grunt, Kaileena then rose to fours. The world suddenly rushed into focus, her vision clearing to reveal a forest and a huge column, like a tower of scales, that dominated it. A tower that was moving, and many, smaller pinpricks of color orbited. Ryū and the others, no doubt.
As it turned to her, its face not unlike hers but crowned with long, winding horns, ridges of spikes along its narrow snout, and a mask of glittering violet scales, she remembered murals depicting mythical creatures in Umeka’s classroom. Her favorite one, actually, because she’d often fancied herself one in humanoid form, or perhaps a distant evolutionary cousin.
“A Dragon.” Kaileena breathed, “A real...live...Dragon.”
Golem charged the Dragon while Durethi and Itaku fought around its hind leg and tail, seeking to prop up on its spine.
Needing no sure footing, the Construct leaped onto the creature, his legs propelling him while extending their length, his arms likewise extending to wrap around its chest. Immediately, something flared in his chest, his power core perhaps, and rivulets of energy danced along the Dragon’s scales. It recoiled, in pain.
“Die!” the Dragon roared, in rage and madness, thrashing wildly to dislodge him, then suddenly lurched forward, leaping and twisting its body to slam him into the ground, wrenching him away and burying him in the dirt, “Oh dear…I seem to have depleted my core…do finish this without-”
It turned away, disinterested perhaps, and were it not for her friends she would have followed her instincts, turned tail, and ran as fast and as far as her feet could carry her. But as it was, her nerves were jittery, and her blood was up, and Kaileena bolted towards the beast, the living monolith of scales and teeth and fury.
As she drew close to its bony spines, which crackled with electricity, her skin flared with purple embers, and she drank in its potent magicka. Activating her telekinesis enchantment, she created a circle of tangible force which lifted her up and then propelled her towards the creature.
“Kaileena? Kaileena, can you hear me?!” Rairakku Hanasaku whispered through her charm necklace, “We’re coming. Without the Kami, the camp is safe. Stay alive for a little while longer.”
When she came into range Kaileena willed a secondary blast of force, which staggered the Dragon, its snake-like body crashing down to the forest. Itaku and Durethi struck at its now exposed belly, while Ryū, blooded but recovering, was standing over a prone Golem, running him through with his silvery blade.
“What are you doing?!” Kaileena gasped, and the Vampyre looked back, irritated, “Recharging his core…Kaminari is willing to give some of its strength to him.”
Nodding, Kaileena turned towards the Dragon, considering the limits of the energy she’s absorbed.
The Veil parted as she activated a more advanced summoning with Arteth’s aid, conjuring forth a mass of Turgon that swarmed around the Dragon as it lifted its head, its maw ablaze. Dozens were obliterated by its killing breath, but hundreds more poured through, each taking a bite or two that punctured the beast’s scales before being swiped, clawed, or bitten, their essences dissipated and returned to their parallel dimension.
The Dragon hissed in pain, its scales useless against such magickal attacks, and Ryū and a restored Golem scaled its body, jabbing in the softer areas exposed by the bites of the Turgon as they went, spewing forth some kind of burning pitch that served as its blood.
“Come, Guardian!” Kaileena yelled, heart pounding with adrenaline, and Arteth took shape fully, his lower half garbed in a strange war-kilt, an umbilicus connecting him to the lamp in her pack.
His wings propelled him, his fanged blade driving hilt-deep into the Dragon’s chest, and a torrent of raw, burning magicka exploding outward from the wound, tearing muscle and ligament. Unmindful of what minor damage they were causing, the Dragon snarled, and readied another killing breath.
Suddenly, dozens of trees not been uprooted by the Dragon’s attacks took on life of their own, ensnaring the beast as it tried to take flight in a panic. Rairakku appeared beside her, a spiraling length of ivory-colored marble in her hands.
The high priestess flourished her scepter, and thousands of birds descended from the skies, harrying the Dragon as it beat its wings again and again, fighting against the grip of her sisters.
“Arteth!” Kaileena commanded, her body wavering, “Return.”
The familiar obliged, vanishing and returning inside the lamp. The Dragon sagged, roaring in pain, and anger, and then fear. Its burning blood seared the forest floor, causing wildfires. Its thrashing splintered mature oaks like tindertwig. But it began to weaken, crying out in pain.
And then she felt a presence about her, like Arteth but more immediate, more unbearable. A disembodied menace. An unfathomable rage. Her temples throbbed, and she doubled over, moaning in pain.
Those around her felt it too, as this presence filled the air itself, and in a man’s voice, proclaimed, “You fight without hope, usurper Karyudo Kisai, and misguided allies. Witness the folly in defying a god, and for wounding that which is so precious to me.”
It was as if the sky exploded. The forest set ablaze. The Dragon took flight unhindered, the blackened and withered limbs of Kodama curling and flaking off from their tree-forms. The remaining Turgon obliterated, banished to Beyond the Veil.
Kaileena used her staff to reflect all magicka in order to protect herself, and even managed to create wards for Ryū and Itaku, feeding off the reserves the Dragon’s energy had given her, but there was little else she could do as a curtain of fire rained down upon them.
“Flee.” she cried, knowing very quickly she was outmatched, “Into the cave!”
It was no use; she might as well have been trying to hold up a mountain, and all the energy she acquired melted away. She prepared to allow the attack to reach past her personal ward, that she might gain the strength to save the others, at least. Arteth stopped her directly, blocking the command from leaving her mind. How could he be able to do that?!
“That power is Yokai’s…if you take it into yourself…-”
“But the wards will fail!” she protested, but he would have none of it, “If you do this, you will die. I will not allow it.”
So Kaileena hissed, and waited for the inevitable, before her charm necklace flared with viridian light.
“I’m here, sister.” Rairakku and the Kodama replied in one voice, and new strength suffused her, fortifying her ward.
“It won’t be enough.” she said, “If Yokai has the power of a god. It won’t be enough."
Yokai fed the flames with regular pulses of magicka, knowing that the girl and her protectors would break long, long before he ever would. He wished no ill upon the enchanter-child, but endangering Tengu demanded swift, decisive action.
And in this one clean stroke, he’d decapitate the Karyudo Kisai and eliminate the Kodama and whatever threat they might pose. It was a necessary step towards his supremacy of Teikoku.
“I’m so sorry, child.” he whispered, hoping she’d hear him, “But I cannot spare you.”
But as he felt her defenses near to breaking, something else came to his attention. His powers were beginning to wane.
Yokai abruptly cut off the flow of magicka, alarmed. With the energies of the Eternal Return fully absorbed into his body, he shouldn’t be experiencing this for years! Yokai scowled, cast a divination, and intuited a black stone embedded deep in the lower chamber.
Its purpose was obvious; Don’Yoku and his cult had left it there, had been siphoning the power of the Eternal Return. His power!
He willed the dark crystal destroyed, and it was so, but it was of little use. With what they’d stolen already he was substantially weaker than he needed to be. He would have power comparable to a god, true, but it wouldn’t function optimally outside his tower palace, and perhaps twelve leagues in any direction.
He couldn’t rule Teikoku from afar; he needed to see its cities crumble, needed to discuss parley with its citizens. Rather than seeing him as one of their own, he’d be some mad recluse in an abandoned keep. How could he inspire them then?!
All thoughts of Kaileena and her band fled from his mind, as he struggled to consolidate what he had left.
He did what he did best; he took a seat, lit an incense, filled a shallow bowl with saké, and pondered. Tengu had survived, thanks to his intervention, and his armies of Homunculi were multiplying rapidly, but would it be enough?
Not all answers were forthcoming, so he would wait. He would study this new enemy in Don’Yoku and his followers, learn their faults, and exploit them when the time came. Patience would be rewarded, and his vision would be realized. And when the time came…
Somehow, the attack began to lessen, and the presence receded. Kaileena didn’t think Yokai ran out of energy to hurl at them, but ignored her confusion for immediate concerns.
She collapsed from exhaustion, panting, a thin stream of yellowy foam coating her lips. Her entire body vibrated with the aftershock of her casting. She saw, albeit in a blur, her sister drop her scepter, and fall to her knees.
Rairakku screamed, wailing at the sight of the smoldering, ruined trees as far as the eye could see. These fires, not borne of nature but of magicka, had seared the earth into glass. The skies were obscured by smoke, hiding the sun’s light.
Two of the Kodama in tree form, Durethi, Golem, Ryū, and Itaku, rose to their feet or reverted to their natural shapes, respectively…but the rest...
“Atrocity…” the high-priestess cried, tears running down her once serene face, “Blasphemy.”
Kaileena rose and turned to face her, uncertain, and the Kodama suddenly threw herself into an embrace, sobbing. Looking at the vague humanoid faces in the trees, twisted in agonized expressions made in their last moments, she cried as well. The Kodama had been close enough to restore in Anima’s wellspring...but against Yokai’s poisonous magicka, Kaileena wasn’t so sure they would ever return.