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

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Chapter 16

Rairakku Hanasaku knelt beside her newest sister, tending to the wounds of those that survived the storm of fire.

“Why did you not tell me?” Kaileena asked, not looking away from the burns she was treating with concentrated aloe leaf and tea tree oil, and Rairakku paused, still coming to terms with what had happened.

It would take centuries for her people to recover; as a species, they relied on Anima’s power, which in turn relied on natural forces unique to their forest. Every leaf, every blade of grass in it was connected to that font, their wellspring. Everything; their shape-changing, their magicka, their immortality...all of it could be damaged, perhaps forever.

“You knew the Kami were aspects of Legion…and so you knew that Sado would be involved as well.” Kaileena added, a new bitterness in her voice, “You knew we would kill him.”

Rairakku nodded, sullen, “You’re half-right; I suspected that Sado’s hound was responsible…but we hadn’t seen Sado in a long, long time. I imagined him dead, or fled from these lands long ago.”

Kaileena shivered, and as she looked up Rairakku saw genuine anger in her bright, violet eyes, “And yet you were willing to take the chance one of your own, Garth, would be harmed…choosing to withhold that information. One might even say you doing so caused the deaths of well over twenty men, because they hadn’t known what they were facing.”

Kaileena rose, furious, “You used us. You wanted us to kill him so you could be spared the embarrassment of there being a male Kodama in this world. After everything you said to me!”

Kaileena paced, her entire body shaking, “He told me of how you and the sisterhood shunned him, forcing him to live a mortal life just for being born as he was! I thought the whole point was to accept others who were…were…”

“Different.” Rairakku finished, “I’m truly sorry for what became of him…but it’d never been his gender that brought about his exile, but his desire to recklessly hunt. We do not abide those who kill for sport, and in his solitude that was his proclivity; an act of defiance against what he saw as his enemy. He couldn’t bear the fact he’d been born male, and that as such, he could not access the full scope of our powers, chiefly, communing with Anima’s children, the Celestials, and their Starborn allies. We didn’t outcast him, Shojo, but we couldn’t include him in all the same ways as a woman. It’s just how it is.”

Kaileena stopped shaking, though her scowl hardly diminished, “You should have told me. I could have reasoned with him if I’d known sooner.”

Rairakku stood beside her sister, and enclosed her in comforting arms, “I am not so certain. In his anger he had created Legion from a great many tortured beasts, to spite Anima. To hunt and kill indiscriminately. That anger, I doubt not, eventually consumed his soul. I truly wish that he’d returned to us, having seen the error of his ways, where we could have offered him penance to regain our immortal lifespan, but fate is not Anima’s domain, and she cannot control our destinies. That falls upon Surthath, and upon us.”

“...What will you do?” she eventually asked, now looking more tired than angry, and Rairakku shrugged, despondent, “Life will come again to these grounds. We will see to it. All things mend in time; that is the will of Anima.”

“And what of those of us who live and yet do not? Can we mend?” Ryū asked, hiding in what shadows he could now that the trees no longer hid the light of the sun.

“We will see. Come, Shojo; the Melagonians will wish to see you.”

She had failed, decided too hastily to avenge herself on the Dread Hammer’s lackeys...

Don’Yoku should have destroyed the girl...she thought he had; Kaileena had been prone, un-moving. Even though Yokai had ultimately dealt with them, the Dragon was far from pleased with herself that the death-worshiper had gotten away.

As she glided along the currents of warmer air, Tengusraczaria grew more and more discontent. Sensing her trepidations, Yokai, her mortal ally, activated their telepathic connection. She remained silent, and he, in turn, grew impatient…

What do you want?” Tengu asked, her wounds cauterizing with her energy-laden blood, the pain subsiding by the moment.

I would ask the same…” Yokai replied, “It looks like you are the one who wants to say something.

Her teeth grated together. He could read her mind at any point…the damned power he had unlocked would do as much, so why was he pestering her?!

Fine…I wish to know why you saved me after I failed you.” Tengu snapped, and the rogue enchanter seemed perplexed by the question. It was an obvious one; Dragons never owed loyalty to another unless it was for mutual gain or if they were blood related. The Djinn, the only other species she knew all that well, showed loyalty, but only to a choice few. Why then, would a human act so…strangely?

I do not understand. Are we not bound together, in our fates as much as our minds?” Yokai replied, to which Tengu grew infuriated, her power involuntarily causing a localized cloudburst. What was he talking about? They were allies, of mutual utility to each other and nothing else!

I saved you because of this; because I care for you.” Yokai said, his words striking something odd, bringing to the forefront of her mind sensations that were unknown to her. One of them perhaps guilt, at her deception, her withholding of critical information and perhaps damning him to the Dread Hammer’s machinations.

Then, “I know why you originally desired me to summon you here, and I do not hold that against you. All I ask is you open yourself to the possibilities. And that you do not consider me in the same light as him.

Troubled, the Dragon nodded, pondering her confused thoughts, “...Very well. I will do as you ask.”

The schooner quickly gained on the leviathan, free from any other interference by the cowardly crewman of its orbiting caravels.

Kiromichi looked back to their own fleet, and was about as certain as he could be that Arainami’s own crew would be more loyal, if only because they knew their mistress would spit in the eye of death itself to hang the lot of them for mutiny.

Drawing his nameless waving blade, Kiromichi directed the ballistae between cruel tirades and belittlement, indulging in his ally’s style of “motivation”.

The enemy leviathan, the first of two, fired cannons, but from the heightened elevation they were designed for targets much further away, and thus the schooner remained largely unmolested. Really, it was a psychological attack; two or three of the forty rounds sailing overhead at a time would sink them. But Kiromichi wasn’t intimidated nor impressed; they were either fleeing of waiting for aid, so they seemed to think they were no match for Arainami’s forces.

There was no reason for Kiromichi to contest the notion that they were right in thinking so.

When they were close enough the men readied a ballistae. When they were directly alongside the enemy vessel, close enough to hurl a rock and hit it, two pairs of hammer switches along the top of the ballistae pushed back, operated by a single trigger at the base.

The device fired, and the spear and its four foot, hooked point punctured the side of the leviathan, and held fast. The rope, connected to several others and a system of wooden supports, were extended by a pulley system into a makeshift drawbridge.

“First Mate! Send them the package.” Arainami yelled, down to a slim, balding man scurrying along the side of the deck, towards the drawbridge. He was carrying a trio of satchel charges in a harness, complete with a small engine powering a spiral drill blade. With the rope bridge ready for him, the first mate carefully crossed it, showing surprising agility given the fact he was carrying well over sixty pounds of equipment on uncertain footing, and when he reached the hull he immediately began drilling a hole to place the charge.

Riflemen took aim, but at such distance, well over three bowshots, they were woefully inaccurate. Their high ground worked to their disadvantage.

Small arms fire peppered the ship, killed a few, but most caught in the mast or went wide and hit water.

Kiromichi sheathed his sword and took to the rifle again, looking down the sights, and waited for those scaling down by rope. He tensed for recoil, and fired, hitting his mark as a descending crewmen fell from the ropes above and into a watery grave.

The barrel snapped upward at the stock, the expended shell ejecting by a spring loader, and he was already forcing in the next round. He fired again, taking a man through the lung, but they were determined now, less climbing and more sliding until their grips threatened to fail them.

Deck hands fell in beside him, but they missed about one in three shots, and they were slow to load, so Kiromichi focused on the most difficult shots; odd angles, wind adjustments, and so forth. Four, then five shots, each one a hit, at least three fatal blows.

Sharks began to circle the schooner, and the enemy’s courage wavered, some even climbing back up the ropes, but the officers on the deck shot them down in less than two arm’s lengths of ascent. Proper motivation, and all.

The first mate finished his work, the satchel bomb in place, and he set the timer by….seven clicks…no-

Damn!” Kiromichi cursed, hitting the deck as the first mate disappeared in the resulting explosion. Even mighty Arainami went down, shocked.

The schooner teetered violently to the left, its apex slamming into the iron hull of the leviathan and splintering at the tip. Even the lowliest of pirates knew how to set a damn timer. Bastard killed himself.

Arainami yelled something inaudible, likely a vile string of obscenities, but Kiromichi recovered, ordered the ballistae loaded anew, seeing a gaping hole in the leviathan’s side, its edges smoldering. More than large enough to accommodate a boarding party.

As the schooner leveled off the ballistae fired right through the void they’d created, an automatic drawbridge leading in. “That is what I get for bedding a weakling, I guess.” Arainami mused, a peculiar frown on her face.

Dekeshi sailed her vessel through the endless void between the worlds, the largest and finest of its kind; an armored Skraul galleon by the name of “Havoc’s Reign.”

An entire fleet of smaller, similar ships trailed in its wake, crewed by her clan and an army of vampyric slave-soldiers, once the civilizations of the realms she’d conquered.

The theft of the Eternal Return was complete, its reality-warping energies allowing a temporary, massive way-gate from which to enter the world God Death wished destroyed. In Aurora, in Teikoku, she and her sisters, her fellow Matriarchs, would crush their enemies and secure Skraul dominance in that section of the Veil, remaking its ruins as a point from which to pass into other worlds, other conquests.

Iki-o-Korosu, her pronged darksteel trident, swirled with shadows, enclosing her fleet in concentrated magicka and thus preventing crewman from being dragged away into the void.

“Havoc’s Reign” and its bladed nose punctured the fabric of the veil, completing their course through the spatial breach, into blinding brightness and unfamiliar scents. Her protections extended to sunlight, cloaking them in gloom, but she hissed nonetheless at the sight of Aurora’s horrible, burning orb that hung in its sky, met by a moment of supreme, animal terror, evoking memories of her lessons as a child, whereupon unworthy sisters were sent to a planet with such a star, burned alive in its enervating rays.

“Aurora; the folly of Surthath.” Dekeshi whispered, studying her new surroundings, “…and Anima.”

As her fleet spiraled down its atmosphere, towards a great sea, she saw its pristine blue waters, but more importantly, the many ships across its surface, one fleet locked in a stalemate with another of greater size. Her arrival was preceded by a battle!

It’d be rude not to stop by and say hello.

The Koriko, a brutishly strong four-armed, four-legged insect race, scurried about the deck, beside purebloods of various rank. The Koriko deckhands were predominantly female, about chest-high to her with the exclusion of their darting antennae, and struggled to keep the sails taut as the winds battered them. The warrior males were twice that size, their barbed, bladed arms capable of shearing through metal plates.

Chikara and Warugashikoi, her twin Broodlord Primes, stood beside her, eyeing the enemy fleets with mixed disdain and hunger.

“They look so helpless. What do you think?” Chikara, the strong but servile one, motioned to his fellow, Warugashikoi, who was more cunning and shifty-eyed, and a little too prideful for a lowly male.

“I think this is a waste of our time.” he replied, his face expressionless, and Dekeshi laughed, “Fear not, my dear grandsons. We will finish with our sport soon enough. Prepare the shroud and load the guns.”

“Havoc’s Reign” and its fleet of Skraul galleons landed hard, displacing water that flowed unto the smaller enemy crafts, capsizing many, but Dekeshi had eyes only for the iron flagship directly ahead.

By her orders, fourteen Koriko slaves were cut down by Skraul warriors, their blood soaking into the black sphere at the center of the deck. Red whorls of energy pooled within its faceted depths, and the entire ship, as well as its subordinate ships, were engulfed in crimson auras, shrouding them, holding back the light of the cursed sun.

She smiled, releasing the flow of power from her trident, and her own shroud dissipated, no longer needed. She needed to focus if she was to cast spells of a more offensive nature.

Dip a hand into the tides of fate. Collapse the heavens and rain death from above.” she prayed, activating the Blood-Forged enchantment within Iki-o-Korosu, “...and from below.”

The sky rumbled ominously, as she fed the planet’s atmosphere a steady stream of energy, displacing its neutral electric charge. Clouds formed rapidly, and the sea churned, its waves growing in size, swirling about her fleet. Black thunderheads pooled within those clouds, thickened, and likewise swirled, quickening the waters into an expanding whirlpool.

The enemy reacted quickly, considering the circumstances. Both sides rushed to fire their primitive cannons. Her Primes cast simultaneously, activating a powerful barrier which deflected their iron projectiles, displacing them harmlessly around the fleet.

“How adorable.” Dekeshi mused, as the whirlpool began to drag the enemy vessels towards its center. They fought, they struggled, to break free of those waters, but with her magicka fueling the growing storm, their strength meant nothing. Half of both the fleets disappeared into the crushing depths, which spat shattered hull and ruined sails about a churning, foaming oblivion.

The iron flagship went last, its sheer size requiring a more personal touch. Dekeshi hefted her trident, and slashed downward, creating an ethereal duplicate many, many times its size composed of pure energy, which effortlessly sliced its iron hull in twain, and sent its two halves into the same maelstrom which claimed its fellows.

She couldn’t hold back her laughter at the sight of hundreds of lives cast into the ocean, which, deprived of her magicka, began to still once more.

Her ocean, now.

Surthath sat, following the course his adversary had presented, and his own pieces filled the board, including a Master Piece of his own, marble and sapphire, winged, his four horned visage in stark detail.

“This is it. The ultimate endgame; Moonshadow and Darkmoor as the prize! This is how the game is meant to be played; winner take all! We exist, but neither has ever been content with the other, even when the seat was filled by that fool Morag Toth. Enough! It is time to settle once and for all who shall rule over the Veil. I shall absorb your hegemony, become the One True God, the god of gods, and I shall judge all as I see fit!” Dur’Artoth railed, his claws digging into the board.

Surthath smirked, “You see the reverse side of this gambit. For too long you have hounded my steps, drawing back the pace of evolution and peace. No more! No more will you haunt me, Dread Hammer, for at long last the Old Ones will be free of you, as will your victims! At long last, we will be free!”

“What was that?!” Kiromichi asked, looking back the way they came. Suddenly the entire fleet had opened fire, and the Leviathan they occupied began to teeter uncertainly. There was no small arms fire in the world that could do that. What were those idiots planning?

Arainami shrugged, motioned to the nearest crewman, “You! Go see what just happened.”

The man paled, no doubt fearing enemies on the way back to the breach, but a murderous glare set him running.

“We keep moving. To the munitions.” She decided, forcing them onward. They had well over two dozen satchel bombs, and with such explosive capability it would be easy to ignite the black powder and thermite munitions of the enemy vessel. Arainami would have quite the show, indeed.

If their schooner had capsized by now, a significant possibility given the cacophony of deafening cannon fire just moments prior, they could fight her way to the enemy life boats. Hopefully her rivals, Vengala and Kruuk, a slaver and a mercenary respectively, were onboard this vessel, and not the other.

She’d never respected either of them; they were blunt instruments, not like her. If anyone was destined to rule the fleet, it was her, not them.

Arainami could hear the ship’s defenders before anyone saw them, and by the time the rifle and cutlass wielding pirates rounded their corridor, she’d long ago ordered her men to stop, guns readied. The first rounds were fired, and it was her men that fired them.

Her twin pistols discharged with sharp retort, right into a pair of riflemen. Her bullets, with rounded, hollow tips, exploded in their flesh rather than puncturing completely through, causing grievous harm. Neither got back up.

While they were busy reloading, the enemy prepared to fire, and were set upon by Kiromichi and his two bodyguards, who’d drawn steel rather than rely on rifles. His unique sword bisected a pirate’s right shoulder blade, and continued through two of his ribs, emerging just beneath his heart, the momentum carrying all the way to run a second man through the gullet, and Kiromichi was already gone by the time bullets passed his way, knocking down a door with his bare hand, the blunt force fueled by ludicrous strength from his enchantments.

Arainami ducked around a corner, aiming it around the bend and firing blindly towards the end of the hall where they were most tightly packed.

Her men did similar maneuvers to angle their rifles, but two fell over clutching bloody holes in their bellies as the second wave of gunfire took them.

First wave…then a second while the first was reloading; standard military formation, except there was one prick who abstained, intended to pick off the idiot who thought the second wave was the time to be ready to fire.

Arainami switched her weapons, the still-loaded, three-chambered pistol in her right, and she spun about, bringing out her left arm while motioning down. When the inevitable shot occurred, she took the grazing hit to her elbow, gritted her teeth, and twisted her arm, aiming straight for the man with the smoking barrel.

She fired into his skull, spattering the contents of his brain cavity, and then fired at the remaining two closest to him.

A canister rolled in; a flash charge, and Arainami shielded her eyes before the concussive sublimation blew her off her feet. Her ears rang, but she could still see thanks to her quick actions, and she was loading her weapons before even bothering to get back on her feet.

“Lady Arainami. Lady Arainami!” one of her own screamed, though it sounded faint to her, and she vowed to flog the idiot after the fight.

“Shut up! It can wait!” she growled, loading her pistol.

“But, My Lady-”

It can wait” she snarled, rotating the loader into position and firing into the poor fool who thought to flank her, certain to make it right under the left lung so they would drown in their own blood. She wouldn’t die at the hands of some lowly deckhand on the derelict ship of some coward unwilling to face her openly. She was Arainami, Queen of Pirates, damn it!

“Stop!” a man shouted through the chaos, “Stop! Parley!” he said, and Arainami ordered a ceasefire. Curious.

“Speak then; say your piece and be done with it!” she replied, still unwilling to push her head into the kill zone.

“Lord Kruuk requests your presence in the hold to discuss the future of the fleet.” The messenger said, and Arainami looked to Kiromichi on the other end of the halls. He seemed equally baffled.

“Kruuk wishes to ally with me?” she asked, wondering if that was why the fleet had refused to directly engage. Why not wave a damned white flag?!

“He wishes to accept your surrender, now that our allies have arrived. Your flagship is no more, and your fleet is routing.” The man replied derisively, and she paled.

“You!” Arainami yelled, seeing the man she’d sent back, “What were you to report?”

The attack occurred before the enemy was even identified. One moment, nothing, then a roiling black fog had descended, dissipating and leaving an army in its wake.

Minamoto had managed to organize a hasty defense for Fusestu, his garrison fortified by those he’d gathered in preparation to siege Yokai’s tower.

He thanked the Totoanatsukami he hadn’t left sooner, and that the Dragon hadn’t damaged the gates, for there would have been no battle, only a massacre. His capital and his family’s manor would have been taken in mere hours.

“Chain rifles at the ready!” he ordered, drawing Sasu, his faithful katana.

“Yokai sends demons to battle us.” Minamoto cursed, “So be it. They will break upon our walls, and we will have his head in time.”

It could be no other; these invaders were not human; they had grey, dusky skin, red eyes, tusks, and barbed, pointed ears. More noticeably carnivorous, more predatory, like wolves without fur.

Most had ragged, patchwork brigandines of leather and mail, and wielded crude iron weapons. Near the rear of the ranks, he saw differently proportioned humanoids in thick, richly adorned plate armor. They were taller, slimmer, eliciting images of hunting cats more than wolves, and Minamoto assumed them to be the field commanders.

There were so many…the bodies literally spread for bowshots; it was like a colony of ants converging on a dust pile. So be it; a new Reclamation was upon them, a new war for Teikoku’s future.

He would not disgrace his family name by losing its first battle.

Gokushi heightened the psionic domination over her slave army, forcing the commander of the Orcs to urge the forces on with increased vigor, even as they fell by the dozens to gunfire.

Kyoki, her darksteel rapier, drove home into dull earth, expending a gout of energy and dispelling the portal that allowed their passage from the ruined world she’d conquered, the one that the Orcs had erroneously believed to be theirs.

Forced undeath had dispelled that illusion

As she watched through her scrying orb at the rearguard, Gokushi saw the defenders ready cannons all along the walls, which were not stationary but in fact loaded and moved by a side-to-side pulley system that allowed a small number of the devices to cover a wide berth of multiple angles.

Creating a small ripple of magicka with her rapier, Gokushi targeted the cannoneers, implanting subconscious urges that would manifest in due time.

The first two lines of the Orcs were decimated by their weapons; like rifles but possessed of multiple barrels and a rapid, repeating rate of fire.

Sadly, one of the weakest of her line, Gokushi could not maintain her spell of madness, the shroud holding the light of the sun at bay, and repel their volley at the same time. She consoled herself with the fact that her thralls were ultimately expendable; they’d turn enough of the city after it was taken to mitigate the loss.

As they closed the distance to the city, a few reached its fortifications and began to climb. Many individual riflemen fired upon them, but even half-breeds were hard to kill, and few indeed were killed.

The repeating cannons became far less accurate, a full third of the rounds either grazing the edges of the advancing hybrids or missing altogether. The third volley was an absolute failure, with the operators of the mechanized weapons suffering from distorted perceptions, the first signs of her spell of madness taking root.

The screams that followed soon after gave her the knowledge that the men controlling the guns were turning on their fellows, their minds frenzied in uncontrollable bloodlust. The scrying orb revealed the sword-bearers along the walls cutting them down with a marked lack of indecision, and their cold hearts amused her greatly. They would be excellent soldiers in her armies.

One in particular took her interest; a male garbed in purple and blue, his sword cutting down the defectors and Orcs with equal ease. Truly, his speed outmatched even hybrid vampyres; he ran one through after decapitating its fellow, and forced a third off the wall, using every bit of momentum for maximum effect as he completed the maneuver in one swift motion.

A pureblood vampyre crept over the balcony from the other side, a dagger in hand, but the male sensed the approach and spun to counter the flank. In a flurry of crossed blades they battled, the dagger parrying as well as a true sword thanks to the skill of its wielder. A slave struck the human in the side, but was blasted back by a latent enchantment, the concussive force sending it flying off the wall and into its fellows.

Gokushi formed another small ripple of magicka; a portal, allowing only her blade to pass through to the other end, positioning the currently imperceptible hole in the space behind the mortal, waiting for the perfect opportunity to spear him. Like a needle, Kyoki would slip through armor and bone, penetrating as deeply as its namesake.

As much as it displeased her, this male couldn’t be turned without undue sacrifice, and Gokushi was nothing if not practical.

She drove her blade towards the minute portal, and it was deflected by an unseen force. The Matriarch drew her sword back to her, and was immediately set upon by a wave of destructive arcane energy, all of which was dispersed harmlessly by her personal wards.

“Who dares to assault a chosen of God Death?!” she snarled, and the being that appeared before her was answer enough. It was massive, dwarfing the Orcs that guarded her on both sides, glowing blue symbols etched all along its black skin.

Huge, membranous wings unfolded, and a head crowned with a lustrous chitin plate and winding horns looked down at her with shimmering blue eyes, its jowls set in a passive frown.

“Greetings, daughter of darkness. To answer your question, it is Starseeker, son of Surthath, that would do so, but you are not worthy of addressing me by my casual name. Speak of me only as Alteriun.”

A glassteel stave materialized in his clawed hand, and he motioned to strike her, but Gokushi parried with her thin rapier, its integrity holding the much larger and heavier weapon at bay.

The Orc slaves charged in, and several suddenly shrank rapidly, collapsing from the sudden, disorienting shift in perspective. Several more were stricken with some paralyzing effect, and were held fast. The rest were repelled by a magickal barrier.

As she pushed aside the staff, Kyoki immediately angled for a second strike, Alteriun reversed the angle of his weapon, turning back with a follow up. Gokushi ducked under the swipe and jabbed at the Djinn’s underbelly, but his plate armor, ending just below chest level, was solid titanium, and not even her weapon could pierce it.

The few remaining purebloods flanked the servant of Surthath, even piercing the seemingly random field of wild magicka that surrounded him without noticeable effect. Alteriun spun back around to deflect their blows, making a fatal error by facing away from her.

Kyoki drove on, seeking the spot between his shoulder blades, and a duplicate of the staff knocked it aside, emerging from the Djinn alongside a third arm!

“Wha-” her surprise was cut short as a duplicate of the Djinn tore free from its original, mimicking his fighting style as the other dealt with her servants. Gokushi dashed around the imposter, but it smiled, barring her way, “There is plenty of me to suffice.”

It was not an illusion?

“A magickal clone?” the Matriarch gasped, as she parried and swept low in a diagonal arc leading inward into an impaling strike. The Djinn caught her blade within the folds of his studded gauntlet and kicked her midsection, forcing her to backpedal or collapse then and there.

“No. Just a fragment of myself, as much a part of me as its twin. I call the technique the Soul-Sever.” Alteriun mused, charging her with the weapon fully outstretched for a sweeping strike.

Gokushi leaped upward, passing over the arc of the stave and landing a strike to his chest, far to the right side, under his shoulder. That was all she needed.

The moment Kyoki passed into the Djinn’s flesh she was the victor, as a thousand darksteel needles burst from his body at many angles, her rapier becoming a thousand pronged menagerie of tiny blades.

Blue blood spattered her body, and she licked a stray rivulet upon her cheek.

“Madness is slight and gradual in its early stages…” she whispered to her victim, “But let it fester and it will burst out from inside. Die well, Son of Surthath.”

Arainami was led up through an ascending platform, conflicted.

While she had little intention to bow out quietly, she would have to see whatever was on deck to understand her odds. She’d ordered Kiromichi to detonate the charges, sinking Kruuk and his flagship out of spite alone.

He’d taken to the idea of suicide surprisingly well, spending himself against a vastly superior force to achieve victory. Damn natives and their peculiarities, but it served this time. Arainami would be damned before she let the scumbag see much of his victory today, if victory it was…

The doors slid open to blinding sunlight, and she cursed as she was prodded to move forward. On deck, there were dozens of armed men, but the one facing away, his hands on the railing, captured her attention.

He turned, his hood thrown down, revealing a weathered, scarred face. His cropped hair was the same dull brown as his beard, the same brown as his eyes. He smiled, revealing stained teeth. The ones that were still there, at least.

“There you are. How nice of you to consent to seeing me, Queen of the Pirates…” Lord Kruuk said derisively, slapping his thigh, rattling the heavily ornamented cutlass at his belt in doing so.

Arainami readied an insult, but as she looked across the bow what she saw stole the words from her mouth.

Arainami was offered a spyglass, and in her state, all she could do was accept it. She saw a fleet of black ships of unknown make and origin. Some cut through the waves, and others flew upon bladed wings like living appendages. Darkness, no, the very idea of darkness, spewed forth from maw-shaped bowsprits in a deadly breath, burning her ships like fire.

This is the Renmei Keiji?” she gasped, unwilling to think that humans could create such things.

“No, they are the Skraul; the mortal descendants of the Dread Hammer himself.” Kruuk said, standing beside her at the helm, his stench of leather and salt an odd reminder of home in such a horrific moment, “Our one true god. Magnificent, are they not?”

“Are you mad?! What says they won’t eradicate you as well?!” she growled, gripping his cloak roughly and earning a few concerned looks from his guards.

He waved them off, “The previous empire in these lands was governed by the Renmei Kisai. The One True God saw fit to bless us this land with freedom and the one universal truth of existence, as he did in our own. My grandfather and his allies helped the rabble of Teikoku to fight off his influence, and defeat the turned Renmei Kisai. We will finish the job they sabotaged, and pave the way for supremacy across all worlds in his name. We will live forever by his side, at the helm of an army the likes of which this world has never seen. What greater goal can there be than this?”

“...I know you want to rule, and I’m fine with that. I can think of many ways you could serve the effort from a seat of power, if you are willing.” Kruuk mused, watching with a disturbing lack of attention as an entire fleet was annihilated before their eyes, “Perhaps I can convince them to stop, if you would be willing to surrender and offer them to me. What say you?”

Arainami was without an answer. All this death, all this madness… They were allied with the Renmei Keiji, allied with...monsters. She’d heard rumors, but...

“Vengala showed doubt as well. It gave me no particular pleasure in ending his life. Death must serve a higher purpose, or it is merely unseemly. Just think of it as joining the winning side. I’m sure it will be easy for you.” Kruuk explained, frowning, and Arainami subtly slid her hand into her coat, feeling for the butt of her pistol.

“No. Of course not. You want to come out on top of the pile. I remember when your father finally brought you out into the world, and before I even knew it you’d risen above your predecessor lord, covered in blood and looking all the better for it. I thought I saw some of myself in you, but now I understand that your rise was fated only as the precedent for your fall.” he decided, his cutlass drawn, and he was upon her before she could take aim.

Steel rang against the tip of her gun handle, bouncing off the metal reinforcement. Arainami hissed, in a flash of pain and adrenaline, and slid out her second pistol, and Kruuk sidestepped as the bullet struck the man behind him, dropping him instantly.

Anticipating the nature of the next attack based on her enemy’s angle, Arainami ducked and sidestepped an upward diagonal strike while sticking the left pistol under her right arm, firing a second round that Kruuk somehow deflected with his damned blade guard! The bullet rebounded off to the side, and it occurred to her that his guards weren’t intervening. No time to consider her fortunes

Arainami spun her body right, outstretching her arm and elbowing Kruuk in the shoulder, all the while positioning her other pistol like an upside-down L, knocking aside the cutlass and putting her directly face to face with her rival lord.

Forgoing pleasantry in combat, she slammed her forehead into the bridge of his nose, twisting to the right to lock arms inside the range of motion of his sword. So close that he could build no momentum to strike, and Arainami needed no momentum for a killing blow.

She pushed her pistol against his torso, and two rounds fired, one right after the other. Kruuk groaned and slumped over, his white shirt running red with his lifeblood.

She smiled, but looked down to her own shirt, red and dripping wet. Guess he’d gotten a good hit off as well, though she couldn’t say when. Damn

“We have seen pain, and hardship, and death.” Durethi said mournfully, “But on this day, we know also of triumph. The Kami; the plague of the forests, is no more, thanks to Garth’s sacrifice and our new friends from the lands beyond! Aid me in welcoming them properly.”

A chorus of voices, human and Kodama, greeted them as Kaileena, Itaku, and Ryū were presented with a shawl-wrapped pillow. Two robed Melagonians withdrew the covering, and revealed several items.

Durethi smiled sadly, “In the event of Garth’s…absence, he wished for me to present the visitors with their due reward. Ryū…please step forward.”

The vampyre obliged, and Durethi gave him a richly ornamented vial; comprised of three smaller vials peculiarly melted together in a coil, not unlike an alembic. Its contents were apparent by its distinctive, black-red color.

“That you need not take life to feed, and be strong to fight those who worship the darkness. For you are a being belonging to the light, whatever you may think.”

“Kaileena.” she continued, “Step forward. In addition to the necklace, your sisters offer you their love, and this bracelet. Its enchantment will bring harm to those that wish it upon you.” she continued, and as an engraved gold bangle slid onto her wrist Kaileena focused some of her stored energy inside of it, activating its effect.

Three balls of energy appeared, hovering around her body, and as she watched, they focused into prisms, and then into rudimentary shapes; flattening into hand-length daggers.

Bowing deeply, she stepped back with Ryū, and it was Commander Itaku’s turn to advance, “Though it was promised, let it not be said that you will leave these lands not only with your prize, but with the admiration of our people. I present to you one of the last known ancestor seeds; the only remaining mortal link to Anima herself.”

The seed, pearlescent in its luster, shimmered with raw enchantment.

“Feed it power, and perhaps its true nature will shine through. In any case, you can use it as a ward against the foul wizard Yokai, and succeed in restoring peace to your people.” Durethi concluded, and Itaku nodded, bowing low; a symbol of great respect coming from someone of his station. Kaileena had never seen him do so except for the Hitorigami himself.

“On behalf of my people and the men lost in this journey, I thank you for your hospitality. On my word as Commander of the Karyudo Kisai, I will do all in my power to ensure this artifact’s safety, and if I can, I will bring it back to you with enough stored energy to bloom anew. By my Hitorigami and all the free peoples of Teikoku, I thank you.” he replied, bowing a second time as he stepped back.

With the event concluded, Itaku receded into the encampment, likely to mourn the lost within his personal yurt. Kaileena nodded to Ryū, followed him to his own yurt, wishing to talk privately with a member of her own race before returning to the wellspring for rest and perhaps more. It would be a long trip tomorrow, back to her home, and then to Yokai; the man that had torched the sky…

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