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

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Chapter 18

Kaileena wasn’t as afraid as she thought she’d be when Yokai’s tower fortress came into view on the horizon.

To her, this was just the completion of her journey. After Yokai was dealt with, she’d find a way to Moonshadow, and the others could repair the damage Yokai had caused. She just hoped she wouldn’t have to kill again, even for the sake of her home.

Sado had appeared in her dreams every night since she’d left the Kodama’s secluded grove, haunting her. She assumed he would for the rest of her life.

Rairakku and Durethi had followed them, to avenge the desecration of their forests. While the Kodama’s strength waned the further she strayed from Anima’s wellspring, the proximity to the ancestor seed prevented her from fatally weakening. And they needed every available hand.

Thus far, the sky had been thickly overcast. They’d assumed a storm brewing, albeit a mundane one. But as they drew nearer, the temporal and spatial distortions wracking the tower became more apparent; black thunderheads swirled ominously, obscuring but offering hints of a sky red like fire, backlit by crimson lightning that forked horizontally, forming intricate net-like patterns.

The wind picked up, subtly at first, but growing in strength. Soon, it buffeted them, every step a battle. Now she truly was afraid.

“Commander.” Kaileena said above the tumult, “If I do not survive…”

“You will, if any of us do.” He replied, and she nodded, more out of respect than because she agreed with them.

None of them will allow you to come to harm.” Arteth whispered to her, “And neither shall I. We will pilgrimage to Moonshadow together.

Kaileena said no more, grateful for her friends.

Ryū darted ahead, scouting the approach. Their commander ordered a halt. He, alongside Golem and Durethi, assumed a wedge formation, drawing steel. The clouds parted suddenly from the eye of the storm, immediately above the pinnacle of Yokai’s tower, revealing a tortured sky and a maelstrom of violent energies.

“An immensely powerful anomaly.” Golem noted, his featureless face matching his empty voice, “Backlash from whatever spells he’s casting up there?”

“No. A portal.” Durethi corrected, and that was all any of them needed to crouch down in the long grass surrounding the fortress, hoping their presence hadn’t been noticed yet.

The red sky began to ripple, like liquid, and a dark, dark spot formed at its eye, swelling outward. Viridian lightning surged outward from the void, which spread until the entire sky was like impenetrable pitch.

A gloom deeper than any moonless midnight fell upon the world, and Kaileena nearly lost her nerve, as she intuited more than saw flashes of a tortured, sand-blasted landscape, pillars of iron that scraped the clouds, and thousands of faces upturned in horror and pain. The wind died abruptly.

Stay very still.” Arteth projected, and somehow Kaileena knew the others had heard as well. She knew, as well, that he’d linked them telepathically.

The tower flared, its stone ablaze in crimson light, and the plains illuminated, creating a surreal, nightmarish swirl of red light and pitch darkness.

Stay together and move only left and forward.” Itaku projected telepathically, “Kaileena, take the helm so you can absorb the defensive wards.

Are you certain she will not be harmed, if this is Yokai’s doing?” Rairakku asked, and it was Arteth who replied, “The wards were created long before he achieved godhood. He merely sustains them with the power gained by the Eternal Return.”

In any case, she did as instructed, crawling on her belly and doing her best to disturb as little of the sparse grass as possible. Without the wind, she sounded preternaturally loud.

She couldn’t see or hear any of the others, but that was little surprise. Golem was hardly an ordinary being, while Rairakku was a creature of nature, well versed in its complexities, and Itaku was as much a creature of stealth and shadow as Ryū and Durethi. It was no surprise they masked their approach as she could not.

Suddenly she heard the ringing of metal, and fearsome battle cries. When she dared look up, Kaileena beheld men without faces and skin of clay, doing battle with beings that defied any conventional means of description; they were masses of energy, coalesced into collections of floating spheres interconnected by a floating nimbi from which a cloud of glowing mist emanated. Their organized movements implied intelligence.

Mrrg…” Arteth projected, troubled, “Once intelligent creatures, they were dominated by the original incarnation of the Skraul. Defiled. Both were defeated by the Carthspirians long ago…but it seems my other half has restored them.

As she tried to crawl as swiftly and quietly as she could, four of the living energy creatures grouped and attacked a lone construct, narrow shafts launching out from their ill-defined bodies like thrusting spears, and upon contact, the homunculus was speared and pulled through piece by piece. There were eating it...

Gritting his teeth, consumed by rage, Yokai extended his perceptions outward, to the defense of his stronghold.

The small group of constructs he’d created had multiplied into thousands, utilizing a diminishing replication enchantment. Just in time to combat an invading army, though certainly not the one he’d expected.

The creatures, like living magicka, flowed more than charged, absorbing his servants and converting them back into base magicka. They were just within the range of the tower’s borders; he could take the field himself.

Why bother?” Death projected telepathically, “They only endeavor for a free Teikoku, as do you.

Death’s mocking laughed resonated in his mind, then, “Of course, one’s exact definition of ‘free’ might not be exact to another’s.

Yokai snarled, triggering a spell that obliterated the first wave of attackers in negative energy, “Your subterfuge will be your undoing. Be gone from my mind, fiend! I will deal with you in due time!

A powerful flame spell buffeted him, but his wards shielded him. A second blast struck him, and Yokai gasped in pain, blisters forming and healing in the same choice seconds, and he projected a matter-obliterating explosion in all directions.

His own spell reflected back to him, and Yokai teleported outside of the blast radius, a stone throw in midair, levitating. His assassin was waiting for him there; a woman, though definitely not human. Her face was a gruesome caricature of an elf’s, with blank, soulless milky white eyes, and skin as dark as pitch.

She too hovered, though judging by the clinging shadows of obscuring fog that covered the lower half of her body, it was no conventional variation.

“Greetings, mortal.” she purred, licking her fangs, eyes narrowed, “You may call me Ranshi. I hope you don’t mind but I’ve stopped by to offer some company. And I brought friends.”

Yokai didn’t reply other than to conjure a score of arm-length blades, whirring in a tight orbit about his body at blinding speed. He charged her, conjuring a wickedly barbed ranseur, and rebounded off a massive, black iron war hammer, a peculiar insignia engraved on its striking face.

Looking to his weapon, its surface a fine molten red, he frowned at the sight of it charring his hand. He backed away, having lost the tips of thee of his conjured swords in those choice moments, their edges red hot and smoldering.

“Do you like it? I call my weapon Yakkin-o-osu, or “Burning Brand”, in this tongue.” She said, eyeing him with a peculiar combination of hunger and lust.

He snarled, wincing at the feeling of his wounded hand regenerating, before pointing a finger towards her, a condensed ball of dark energy emerging from its tip and propelling forward.

The creature sidestepped, interposed her hammer, which absorbed his death-spell, and flourishing the weapon, projecting a duplicate that broke upon his wards. He winced at the expired energy, not only in the spell itself, but the effort in resisting it.

“Why waste all that power, mortal? Yakkin-o-osu! Mark him!” she raved, and Yokai gasped in pain, as something burned into his chest. Pulling apart his tunic, he stared blankly at a red patch of irritated, puffy flesh, shaped in the likeness of the hammer’s insignia. It began to glow, and immediately he felt his godly power begin to wane.

She charged him, landing a blow that broke right through his wall of blades, shattering them apart.

“The fires draw from what they burn. You; my latest kindling…” she explained, and Yokai hastily projected a recurring field of negative magicka outwards, nullifying all enchantments every two seconds for as long as he willed it. The brand disappeared, and as close as he was, Yokai reached out with his other hand to grip her neck. Startled by the sudden ferocity of his attack, she hissed. The hammer landed a glancing blow, but he was inside of her defenses and it had no strength behind it.

He increased the pressure, feeling her throat tighten and constrict, twisting slightly. The hammer took on life of its own, flying from her hands and swinging down without a wielder!

Yokai willed seven blades to intersect, forming a solid aegis, and still the hammer broke through and struck his shoulder, fracturing his shoulder blade, and pushing fragments forward to puncture a lung. Gritting his teeth through the pain, unwilling to relinquish his hold, Yokai dropped his ransuer and caught her hammer, that it not escape the next pulse of anti-magicka, and threw it aside.

Ranshi gritted her fangs, but retaliated with tooth and claw. Nothing for it, Yokai wheezed, as he stabbed her again and again with his conjured swords, as his lungs began to fill with blood, which intertwined with hers in rivulets raining down to the floor below.

Kaileena began to feel a strange sensation; like a deep humming followed by the smell of rust and ozone. She held out her hand, and found it covered in purple embers.

We reached the ward.” she projected, hoping that Arteth’s mass telepathy was still active. She stopped, and waited for the others to come in close enough that her Spell-Eater Strain would shield them. She smelled Rairakku beside her, but needed the psionic confirmation that the rest were present; they were just too quiet in their movements and at the very least Itaku used something to mask his scent.

Arteth sent the impulse to move more quickly, “To your left there are constructs drawn by the ripples of energy. You have to get out of the proximity of the effect, now!

Kaileena shuffled along as quickly as she could, but still she saw the purple ripples on her hands, probably covering her entire body. Itaku suddenly rose in front of her and charged something to her right. She stood up, as did the rest, and blanched at the sight of dozens of faceless constructs surrounding them.

Itaku knocked aside his enemy’s katana with his own, and in an impossibly fast motion brought his blade to bear a second time in a stroke that cleanly severed its head.

The construct continued, unmindful, but before they were completely surrounded Itaku, Durethi, and Ryū broke the line and they advanced further, straight to Yokai’s tower. Kaileena tried to keep as close as possible to her friends so her body could absorb any other defensive spells.

The constructs gave pursuit, Golem only distinguishable by his weathered travel cloak, and the Mrrg followed, absorbing homunculi as they went.

The tower flared a bright, bright red, and the embers enshrouding her flared as well, an increasing rush of magicka filling her.

Use the seed…” Arteth advised, and she drew it from her pack, fearful that another such blast would overwhelm her. A body could only contain so much energy before...-

Another pulse rattled her, but it was the ancestor seed that flared with the influx of power, its surface pitting with tiny, thin fissures.

Rairakku flourished her scepter, and a massive dome of white light materialized around them, moving in tune with its creator. Kaileena looked up to see a volley of flaming rocks falling from the sky. On impact with Rairakku’s ward, they exploded with such a resounding crash that she was knocked off her feet.

“Keep moving!” Golem yelled over the deafening tumult, pulling her up. The Mrrg reached them, but Kaileena forced them away with a pulse of telekinetic force, long enough for Ryu to discharge a bolt of electricity and destroy them. Their resistance was comparatively light; the armies were too occupied with each other to harass them with more than a dozen at a time. It was the only reason they’d survived this long.

From this point onward, rely fully on the seed to absorb magicka.” Arteth advised, as they drew near a winding stairway leading to a single, narrow bridge.

Silently thanking her familiar, Kaileena took to the stairs first, displaced air swirling around her hands as the ancestor seed devoured another attack in full.

The constructs gathered above, and they reorganized, Ryū and Golem in back to deal with the Mrrg with magickal attacks and extended reach, respectively, while Itaku and Durethi took point to clear the way of homunculi and allow them to ascend further. Rairakku maintained her barrier, which deflected another devastating barrage of fiery meteors, while the seed absorbed direct magickal attack and the layers of defensive wards.

Kaileena, for her part, tried to stay out of everyone’s way and not drop the seed.

Itaku and Durethi charged fearlessly into a four-by-seven column of homunculi, their swords, one dark, one silvery, whirring through the claylike material of their featureless bodies. Kaileena used the enchantment of her third horn-ring, splitting the fabric of the Veil and conjuring four mature Turgon to further their progress against Yokai’s creations.

A wall of flames appeared before them as they cleared the stairs up to the bridge, and the seed didn’t absorb its base magicka. Kaileena cast a powerful abjuration through her second horn-ring, and it faltered almost immediately.

“It’s Yokai.” She gasped, winded, “And the fires are mundane. I cannot diffuse it and the seed cannot absorb it.”

Rairakku moved to the forefront, and began chanting, inaudible amid the tumult.

The stairs under them began to rumble ominously, and Kaileena looked to the ground to find thick ivy vines penetrating the floor. The area around the wall of flames became a tangle, then an impenetrable overgrowth that smothered the fire by depriving it of oxygen.

“That won’t hold for long. Move!” she yelled, and Kaileena bolted through the deep green foliage, needing no encouragement, as the green plant life under her was quickly darkening…

Smoke drifted up from the ground, and she activated another enchantment in the form of a conical blast of telekinetic force, sending five constructs on the other side tumbling off. She crossed the gap just after Durethi and Ryū, who cut down the remaining constructs on the other side, and Rairakku was right behind her. Itaku and Golem now held the rear, but little dancing flames appeared all throughout the bulk of the obstruction between them.

“Hurry!” Kaileena shouted, using the enchantment within her bracelet to create five ethereal daggers, directly targeting the Alchemist Stone cores and launching each into one of the advancing homunculi. Each of them clutched their chests, and collapsed, disintegrating.

Using another abjuration, she severed the metaphysical connection between one construct and its core, and it too crumbled apart. A single jet of fire broke through the overgrowth Rairakku had created, blasting Itaku in the side of the face, but recovering quickly, he sidestepped an attacking homunculus and ran it through, his profile blistered.

Kaileena’s daggers drew free and flew into secondary targets, but the constructs were a mob, and they were close to being overwhelmed. But suddenly Itaku disappeared and then reappeared on the other side of the plant construct before it was obscured by a plume of black smoke.

Their commander looked to her, noted the baffled expression on her face, and turned with his ancestral blade in hand as the constructs advanced unhindered through the re-emerged wall of flames, Golem included.

“These were not the defenses Maki encountered...” Itaku said with a grimace, “He must have modified them. We walk an unmapped trail.”

The Matriarch eyed her fallen Primes glumly as they continued on to port, the rest of the fleet, save the flagship Elurra had absconded with, destroyed. Not completely, mind; their sunken, bloated corpses would come in handy in the near future.

Dip a hand into the tides of fate. Reach into the void and draw from it the whispers of the soul. Rise, my servants. Return.” she chanted, commanded, invoking the will of the One True God.

Her grandsons opened their eyes wide, not their natural white but black as polished obsidian. Necromancy reshaped the body so it could carry on in a twisted, hollow semblance of life; it drew from an ancient power that poisoned the All-One, Argosaxx. What she attempted now was no necromancy, but a plea for God Death to recover the souls of her Primes and return them, healing their bodies in the process.

It succeeded.

“We…live…” they replied simultaneously, breathlessly, their fatal wounds sealing in moments, their bodies so cold from proximity to the void the air frosted. They recovered quickly, no paltry beings, abasing themselves to her with words of unmitigated gratitude. Flattery always endeared oneself, after all.

“I return you to the living only because you can offer more to me. Don’t make it a habit of venturing to the great darkness beyond.” Dekeshi warned, “Now chin up! You came back just in time for the grand display!”

Her vessel cut through the waves like a sword, and the roaring sea grew in strength and violence the closer they got to their destination. The human city stood within a maelstrom of bitter winds and pouring rain by the time they arrived, the very trees uprooted and hurled into the air. Their fleet was at the ready, expectant of battle. There was no battle to be had

“I think it’s time to call on our new friends while they still have the strength.” she decided, casting a complex, exacting spell of necromancy, drawing on the powers that be to reanimate temporary undead, specifically, those poor drowned sailors still moldering uselessly in her ocean.

Ryū struck the homunculi through the chest, impaling its stone heart, and Hyosho fed upon the energy that animated it.

They crossed the bridge, Kaileena first, and the ancestor seed cupped in her hands surged with light, absorbing the magickal defenses. As he followed her through the threshold, there was a great uneasy feeling that passed through his chest he could not explain.

Itaku cleared the opening, followed by Durethi, then Golem, then Rairakku, who created another explosive growth of plant life that grew under the stone floor, pushing up a block over two paces thick to seal the entrance. Darkness, pure and complete, took hold, at least until a glowing ball of energy appeared, hovering in midair beside the Kodama High Priestess. It began to orbit her body, though the light’s reach and direction remained constant.

“Rairakku.” Kaileena gasped, eyeing the object that resided in her hands, “The seed.”

He looked to her, and saw that the seed was…humming.

“Don’t worry. I sense it can hold much more…” Rairakku noted, and Ryū took point, his eyes quickly adjusting to the darkness beyond the reach of Rairakku’s spell.

Now that they were inside the tower, away from the battle outside, Ryū could hear the sounds of another battle in here.

The vestibule, more a long corridor, led to a sprawling main area with an immensely high roof and a spiral stairwell leading up. There were torches arranged all throughout, revealing complex magickal runes etched across the walls, floor, and even winding around the conical ceiling, emitting crimson light.

It was beautiful, really, or it would’ve been if he hadn’t known of its monstrous purpose; to pervert nature and turn mortals into gods.

The battle was occurring above the ceiling, inside a second, larger area, to which the stairwell offered the only means of access. A scent, almost indeterminable, made him stop. His allies tensed.

“Itaku.” he said, drawing his wakizashi, “I want you all to carry on without me. I will help you if I can.”

Kaileena looked to him, confusion, hurt, and…something he wasn’t sure he’d identified properly written on her face. He pulled the Vitrium bottle from his belt, and drank deeply, distributing the influx of raw life energy between his body and his weapons. He put on his mask, hiding his current expression.

The others protested, assuring him they’d need his help. Ryū paid them no heed, beginning to pace in irritation until they were gone.

“I know you’re here, Skraul. Reveal yourself to me.” he demanded, and Kyokan appeared immediately, that infuriating smile etched across his face.

“Now you begin to understand.” he mused, drawing his black blade.

“You are here for Yokai’s power; to drain his blood.” Ryū replied, “And you wanted me to find him. No…you knew I would.”

The Skraul laughed, tilting his head in curiosity, “No; that wasn’t what I meant. A complete moron could have puzzled that out after you detected me earlier. No, what I meant was that you’re learning what it is to be a vampyre. To be one of us. It makes me happy.”

Ryū scowled, then, “I know what I have become.”

“...But I also know what I am becoming, and what I may become when you are gone.” he continued, noting his enemy’s puzzled expression, “For the first time I wonder if I can live through this. I know I cannot be what I once was; my family, my village, my child…all of that you destroyed. But what I fight for, what all of my people fight for, is hope, the hope that we can endure and emerge together for a brighter future. Nothing, not even this…-”

He held up his blood red hands, “…can change that. Can change the fact that I, too, am now filled with hope.”

“You spoke differently to the girl, claiming this was the beginning of your end.” Kyokan argued. At that, Ryū smiled, “I lied. It pleased me knowing her grief would be lessened in case of my death. I’ve grieved far too long to want others to grieve for me.”

For the first time, Ryū saw the vile Skraul truly speechless. It didn’t last.

“I am truly disappointed in you.” Kyokan sighed, deflating, “You had so much potential, even for a mortal. In a century or so we might have accepted you among us, once you lost the last pathetic vestiges of your former, meaningless life. No matter; I will indulge myself in one last dance with you before I deal with Yokai and your worthless little friends.”

This time it was Kyokan that struck first, his sword inches from Ryū’s face in a heartbeat.

Kaminari parried and sent rivulets of electricity down the opposing blade, up Kyokan’s arm, and into his nervous system, temporarily contracting his muscles. Hyosho descended, was parried, and the Broodlord was already dealing another strike aimed for his underbelly.

Ryū sidestepped, finding Kyokan’s attacks to be far more manageable than in their previous encounter, perhaps in thanks to the infused blood he’d consumed.

Kyokan was quick to notice as well, and improvised with a quick jab to his midsection, and when he knocked the blade aside, just barely, it became clear that the Skraul still outmatched him in brute force.

He backpedaled, winded, and Kyokan was upon him, delivering an elbow to his ribs that pushed blood and bile up to the roof of his throat. Hyosho activated an enchantment, chilling and hardening Ryū’s flesh with icy plates, and the next strike left Kyokan drawing his fist back with broken knuckles.

Ryū kicked off, somersaulted back into a defensible stance, reversing the grips on his twin wakizashi and spinning into a flourish, the first strike parrying Kyokan’s sword and displacing its momentum, the second one deflecting off a darksteel plate covering the Skraul’s underarm.

Ryū used the force of the impact to lift his legs off the ground once more, leaping over a low strike, and crosscut Kyokan across the chest as he reached an aerial zenith. The mithril blades left deep gashes in the thick plates, but didn’t fully penetrate, and Kyokan landed a kick that cracked his shoulder and spun him off balance. He landed on his side, gasped, and twisted back up to his feet.

Seeing blood in the water, Kyokan focused his attacks on the injured side, one devastating two-handed swing after another, and Ryū only managed to deflect the first blow, the second one piercing his defenses and gouging his thigh.

“Come on, now! You were doing so well.” Kyokan mocked, thrusting his blade in a series of impaling strikes that were so swift that the edged length of darksteel seemed to split into three, and Ryū spun his blades in succession, either knocking it aside or taking the minor hit that sent up a flash of agony followed by a brief numbness, thanks to that insidious enchantment.

Hyosho and Kaminari detonated their destructive energies outward, first in a blast of bitter cold that left beads of moisture across the Skraul’s body, then a wave of electricity that clung to the drops of liquefied air and charred his armor and flesh.

“How…exquisite…” Kyokan gasped, in orgasm, his sword rattling in his hand. In a fit of dementia, the Skraul forced all his strength into a strike that split Ryū’s mithril mask down the middle, leaving a bloody line from forehead to snout.

Ryū roared, Kaminari releasing a blast of electricity that burned right through the Skraul’s darksteel shoulder plate, molten ore dripping down his arm. He cried out, backpedaled, then...laughed.

Even with his flesh smoking, Kyokan retained his smile, and planted his black sword into the floor. Darkness churned around his body, before solidifying into a cloud of bats, forcing him to retreat. Kyokan didn’t press his advantage, standing there grinning like a madman.

Ryū backed away, puzzled, as the Skraul buried his head into his hands, giggling, “Oh the fun we could have had as rivals for the favor of the Royal Line. You’ve kept me entertained so damned well I’ll tell you a little secret.”

Kyokan paced around his sword, “You see…there is something that divides the Matriarchs and Primes from other, lesser varieties. Their weapon, their living weapon, acts much like a sentient enchantment, and bears one or more effects. However, what most do not know is that the weapon is really a fragment of its wielder’s life force. You didn’t create your swords idly; when you made your first real kill, when you drew their life into yours and grew in power because of it, your instincts demanded it. You birthed your swords. They are no mere weapons. They are you, as my sword is me. You see, some of us realized that our swords, being manifestations of ourselves, could recombine to become something more. To do this…” he explained, “…one must know oneself, truly know. I, for one, know myself…”

Drawing his sword, Kyokan upended it, and slid it between the plates of his own armor. Ryū stood, uncomprehending, as the length of darksteel drove deeper and deeper, impaling him, the point never emerging from the other side. The lunatic sank the blade to the pommel, then finally all the way, and looked to him, pained but exultant, “See me now, Ryū, for what I truly am.”

There was a flash of blinding light, scalding his flesh, and Ryū was forced to look away. When it passed, it wasn’t Kyokan standing there, or at least, it wasn’t the same Kyokan.

His armor was gone, his skin a coat of rot-green scales. His body had thinned, elongated, effectively doubling his height, arms reaching down to his ankles. His head had flattened, narrowed, his neck widening into a leathery hood with a patch of white scales resembling a skull. Dozens of spines poked out from his back, dripping with venom and bubbling tar. His new sword was thin and narrow, like a needle, its tip smoldering green.

The Skraul that was no longer just a Skraul grinned, his fangs extended to finger length, his mouth expanded to accommodate their growth.

“It’s been a pleasure, Ryū .” Kyokan hissed, a forked tongue darting between his teeth, and the blade embedded in Ryū’s chest, right through his heart. He felt no pain, even as the blade slid free, a thin streak of dark blood coating it. The floor fell away, as did he…

“Flee, usurper, or die. You are outmatched.” Yokai said coolly, releasing his hold on the creature when it became clear she was too weak to fight. The many, many deep punctures across her torso were healing, but sluggishly, gushing black, tarry blood. Her eyelids dropped.

Ranshi descended about a stone throw towards the floor, too weak to persistently maintain her levitation. But then she looked up to him, and grinned wickedly.

“See me now, fool…” she hissed, wheezing, pressing her hammer against her chest. And from her body emerged such a catastrophic sublimation of heat and light that even Yokai, with all his godly power, shied from it, shielding his eyes, before opening them to find his enemy...changed.

Her body’s shape remained, though in place of flesh there was energy, her skin transparent to reveal a maelstrom of flame. A billowing cloak of smoldering ashes reached down her nude body, little particles flaking off in the air yet never taking from it as a whole. In the void of her chest that the hammer had created was a spherical core marked with its insignia, white-hot plasma swirling ever about itself in a dense singularity not unlike their yellow sun. About her body the air itself burned, forming a corona that blurred her and her surroundings.

She struck, faster than he would have thought possible, and Yokai hastily erected a hemisphere of telekinetic force to shield himself from the worst of the attack. Still, her attack was not entirely in the impact, and the heat of her closed fist seeped through the barrier and smote him. Due to the intense heat he felt no pain, though he knew his skin had been badly burned.

Sensing his ally return from the east, Yokai made the walls of his tower momentarily intangible, and Tengu filled the room.

“You will not harm him!” she bellowed, a white light pooling all along her spine and into her opening maw. A tremendous beam of condensed plasma struck Ranshi, and that was all the advantage he needed to begin the threads of his next spell; an immensely powerful abjuration that would sever whatever power Ranshi had infused herself with. He threw out his hands, and a field of anti magicka washed over her. To no effect

“You fool; I am the power! There’s nothing to take away!” Ranshi said mockingly, turning as Tengu closed on her flank.

“No!” Yokai cried, as Ranshi hurled forward, blazing with the energy of Tengu’s breath attack, and struck the Dragon, and that entire segment of her lower body blackened. The heat traveled up, melting her spines, and as it reached her head, she breathed white-hot flame and her eyeballs burst. The impact was so violent as Tengu collapsed the entire tower shook.

Yokai reacted quickly, creating a metaphysical link between the Dragon and himself, letting her feed off his personal life energy to stay alive. Not enough to revive her, but just enough to keep her heart beating. He also erected a ward that would trap and concentrate heat, and charged Ranshi in full force, screaming his anger and frustration at the sight of his only friend and ally mortally wounded.

She turned, tried to strike in turn, but her fist passed into him, and held tightly. A corona of flame burst from his body, its size and density shifting chaotically.

“What-” was all she could retort, before he drew the rest of her body into his ward, trapping her and amplifying the energies that composed her body, then expanding and contracting them violently outward.

“It may seem an advantage shedding your physical body.” Yokai said, breathless, “Certainly, I had no immediate counter for it; but energy, one might imagine, can be more easily manipulated by magicka than solid matter. Tengu gave me the moment I needed to realize that heated air and plasma exists in the state it does because its individual molecules are spaced father apart than in a liquid of solid, and rapidly moving. The farther apart they are, the easier it is to separate them.”

With a deft pass of his hand, he expelled Ranshi’s scattered molecules out of the tower in a tremendous explosion, immolating the attacking armies and everything within two leagues of his tower fortress, “No offense to you, Ranshi. You would have found just about anyone else unable to counter your organic conversion into energy. But as I am, it was well within my ability.”

Daring a glance outside the tower by willing a patch of wall transparent, he winced at the sight of a sky darkened with smoke, a plume likely visible from as far as Hitorigami City. Aside from a few dozen of his homunculi, which were extremely heat resistant, nothing remained of the landscape but a ground seared into volcanic glass.

Sighing, he cancelled out his levitation, descending to the floor beside his friend. Her skin was riddled with third-degree burns, her eyes blackened, smoking holes. Her breathing was shallow and irregular, due to charred internal organs. The air bladders throughout her body that allowed her to more easily take to the air were ruptured, leaking fumes throughout that would further damage her.

He laid a hand against her side, tears rolling down his face.

Easy…” he whispered, speeding up her body’s natural cycle of regeneration, being very careful not to infect her with his toxic magicka, “Easy.”

Her eyes started to reform in their sockets as shriveled white sacks. Her wings, curled into twisted knots of bone and sinew, grew tendrils of membrane and muscle. The burnt black scales across her body flaked off to reveal a softer, pale violet undercoat. Her breathing steadied, and she said his name, though it came out as little more than a pained croak.

Yokai drew in close, the side of his head pressed against hers.

“I failed to kill Don’Yoku. I failed to kill Kaileena. She and the Karyudo Kisai were already inside the tower before I could stop them. I’m so sorry.”

He shook his head, “No, no…it’s not your fault.” He ran his hand along the ridge of her brow, “Rest, Tengu, we shall endure this”.

“Together?” she asked, and Yokai smiled, “Together”.

Ryū walked through a dark corridor as he had many times.

Robed figures stood to either side, beckoning him. They smiled, but he knew the gesture to be false, a deception meant to encourage him to reach the other side.

Kyokan’s venom-dripping blade was still impaled through his chest, its green fluid intertwined with his black-red blood. It seemed strange, but the wound didn’t pain him… Nothing for it this time, he stepped down the hall, and into the darkness beyond. It felt like those last moments, in that desert, his lifeblood pooling around him.

Pain, again. Coldness, again. A moment of panic, and sweet release, nothingness. Darkness, all around him. Familiar darkness.

He held up his hands, and found them suffused with shadowy magicka.

“The void, huh?” Ryū said, then laughed, “The World Serpent won’t have me, then? I guess I can’t blame them.”

There was no answer, and he sighed, “Fine. Where to? Eternal punishment? I’ve certainly earned it.”

“No.” a voice replied in his native tongue, distant.

“I will remain here, then? In this abyss, left to ponder my sins for all eternity?”

“No.” the voice repeated, now not so distant.

“Where, then?” Ryū snapped, “And who are you and where’s your voice coming fr-.”


A hand caressed his back, carefully avoiding his scars. A familiar feel to it, too. His scruff tightened. His back went stiff.

Ryū turned; it was the wrong way to put it, because there was no direction or sense thereof. It felt more like he was rotating. A disorienting, out-of-body feeling that was quickly dismissed.

Because there, her flesh translucent and cloudy, emanating its own, inner light, was Oki. Just as he remembered her.

“An eternity...” Ryū breathed, tormented, “Alone, and yet here you are. Is my end to be a reward, then?”

Oki nodded, smiling, “If you are ready. But you are not yet here with me, for I stand in the world coil, and you are but vapor and shadow.”

His chest hurt; he wanted to be ready very, very much. The battle became a distant memory.

“My love...” Ryū said, achingly. Oki nodded.

“Sun on my Scales...” he moaned, and as he reached for her, the pain grew worse. Right. Kyokan’s sword.

But as he drew closer, the sword and the wound it’d created diminished, leaving new, healthy skin. A dull, silvery-iron sheen. His natural coloration. The shadows surrounding him thinned, and began to brighten, until his very flesh became translucent, like hers. To die, and rejoin the world coil. To die, and rejoin his Oki. Was this really happening?

“I’ve waited so long for this...” Ryū admitted, his hand gently, so gently, brushing against her face. Then, amidst the memories of his life with her, newer memories surfaced.

A sad-faced young girl with bright violet eyes.

A surly, brown-haired warrior.

A witty construct, and a noble vampyre.

A Kodama and a Djinn and likely the promise of newer, stranger friends along the way...

A shadowed path, leading inexorably to the light.

“But I can’t.” Ryū gasped, downcast, fighting the tears gathering in his eyes, “Not yet. A poor friend I’d be if I let that girl and those idiots get themselves killed! But I’ve made mistakes. So many of them. I don’t know if I’m about to make another one either way I choose. How long we have waited, to be parted only by this thin veil? How long can we wait?”

Oki smiled, “As long as it takes. I have not forgotten, and I can never forget. I will wait here for you to complete me, that we may become something new in another life.”

She kissed him, softly, tenderly, and he buried her in his arms, “Thank you. Sun on my scales.”

Ryū sank down with her, his heart aching as it hadn’t since it had stopped beating. He wept, “I love you. So damned much it hurts, even now. After everything I’ve done! Everything I’ve become...”

“...Thank you. For this. For everything.”

He stood up. Banished his doubts. Hardened his resolve.

He turned from his mate, to a robed pair, for they were not alone in this fugue. She recoiled behind him, and vanished. The light about his body dimmed, then darkened. His wounds reopened, and the scars across his back burned as if aflame. Just as he needed.

The two figures stood at either side, robed not in black but white and bright blue, respectively. They raised their heads, and Ryū stared dazedly into two reflections of himself.

HyoshoKaminari…” he gasped, “You waited for me.”

Hyosho shook his head, “Yes, but not for you to die.”

“You wielded us.” Kaminari added, “You gave us life. We are here to return the favor.”

Both of his blades looked to him, carefully gauging his expression, then, “But it is you who must be the one to do this. All we offer is a question; the key to your release from this place. What are you. What do you possess?”

Ryū stood perplexed, but his blades said nothing more. He remembered something Kyokan had said, just before that single, fatal strike. What was it?

“…our swords, being manifestations of ourselves, could recombine to become something more. To do must know oneself, truly know.

We know what you are…” Hyosho said gravely, “As do you.”

And Ryū indeed knew. Hyosho and Kaminari were manifestations of two of the four elements; Wind and Water. The Grave Dust in the small pouch at his neck was representative of the element of Earth, another integral part of his being. Integral, but not central; it did not define him.

He looked through the events of his life; the choices he had made, and the choices that had been made for him.

He’d created the Te Fukushu, had been the great force of change his people needed, destroying the old so the new could take its place. Within him, within his soul, was the remaining element; the core of his being.

It was fire

Kyokan stalked his prey in the winding hallways that curved about the perimeter of the tower, going up, up, ever so gradually. He found them near the entrance to Yokai’s inner sanctum, and caught them unawares. A girl, Silkrit like his dear deceased Ryū. Another Vampyre half-breed. A human male. A creature he didn’t know of, that reeked of Anima.

And... Though it was cloaked, he could tell by its scent that it was no creature of nature, but a construct. He disliked constructs; they were unpredictable. He’d dispatch it quietly, if possible, then the unknown creature, then the girl, then the rest.

As the group rounded a bend, he pounced on the construct, removing its Alchemist Stone heart. So rapid, so precise were his movements, that it didn’t utter a sound. Nonetheless, something must have given him away, for they all turned. How the girl’s eyes went wide with fear. He changed his plans; she’d be last, so he could enjoy her.

“Golem!” she cried, striking with a wave of telekinetic force, but Kyokan was already several paces forward and to the side. A spell uttered by someone unseen triggered the construct’s core in his hand to explode, sending the girl through the air to strike the far wall. Were it not for the telepathic barrier she’d erected in those brief moments, she would have been badly injured.

Kyokan, for his part, looked dazedly to the stump where the lower half of his left arm used to be. Good thing it wasn’t his sword arm.

The half-breed reached him next, thrusting her black blade in an impaling strike, but he knocked it aside, his own angled perfectly to deflect not only the first attack but also two balanced throwing daggers following immediately after. He took her down with a swift thrust through the gullet, which pinned her to the wall closest to him.

The human came in with a horizontal stroke aimed for his midsection, and was kicked aside, rupturing his solar plexus. Down long enough to deal with the others.

Kyokan rattled a spell that corroded a person’s bodily fluids, targeting the girl, and she vomited, then collapsed. Her magickal barrier dissipated.

Kyokan drove in to finish her off, unwilling to risk defeat for the sake of his personal enjoyment, but paused, then looked down to see two fiery blades poking from his chest. Two blades.

“Impossible…” he gasped, turning back to see Ryū, standing several paces away, quite alive. The blades vanished, and the reappeared in his hands, their silvery ore trailing burning embers.

“Oh. I see.” Kyokan mused, looking down to his new left hand as it emerged from its stump, shrunken and atrophied. For now.

Ryū hissed, advancing slowly, then grinned, “Thank you, Kyokan. Thank you for helping me reach this point. In return, I will give you the pain that you so crave.”

He impaled himself upon them, down to the pommels, and they disappeared inside of his body. His eyes flared blood red, then brightened, becoming a shifting gradient of red, orange, and yellow, like a roaring fire. The many, many scars across his torso began to smolder, then burn brightly, and two great blade-feathered wings tore free from his back, wrought of flame.

Over his face emerged a new mask, avian rather than draconic, which opened its maw and shrieked with such piercing intensity that even he clutched his ears and moaned.

The transformed Ryū charged him weaponless, hands bladed claws, and Kyokan angled around him, using incredible speed to attack from two angles simultaneously. Ryū parried both strikes with two fiery representations of his wakizashi that materialized of their own accord, and breathed white-hot fires that smote across his coat of scales, melting it against the tissue underneath.

Like a Phoenix, Ryū had recreated from his own ashes, as he had in his first death. He was a Phoenix; he’d found his true form.

His arm fully restored, and the burns already began to heal. Kyokan snarled, cutting across with both blade and claw, both of which were deflected by Ryū’s left blade, the other coming in for a riposte. Kyokan sidestepped, but Ryū was already drawn for a second stab, clipping his side and burning right through his scales.

Ryū had spoken truly; the pain was unbearable. Around his body the air filled with impenetrable darkness. The attacks ceased. He saw, through blurry eyes, a pair of swords burning with pure golden light.

“I see you...” Kyokan hissed, casting a spell that would twist the fool's organs, shatter his bones. Sever the soul. One he reserved for those truly deserving of it.

“Now you’re mine!” he snapped, hurling his spell right between the swords. To no visible or audible effect.

“What?” he gasped, as another pair of swords lit up amid the darkness. Then another. Six became a dozen, then an hundred, then a thousand, surrounding him in blinding light. He screamed, burning, and shied away from it, and Ryū charged him, impaling him through the chest, darting past him and disappearing into the darkness.

Kyokan turned, thrusting his own sword, but not only had Ryū passed him again, he’d left another pair embedded into his body. He cried out. Again, and again, Ryū passed him, planting another pair, each one burning him from the inside, melting his scales, boiling his organs, splitting his bones.

In an uncertain, detached way, Kyokan noticed there weren’t so many blades of light around him anymore, though he couldn’t quite fathom why. He fell to a knee, then the floor suddenly rose up to strike him. Or maybe he’d just fallen flat. It was hard to tell. Was he dead?

Ryū, Hyosho, and Kaminari screamed in triumph as Kyokan disintegrated, and they drank in his life energy, fortifying their own. When there was nothing left, Ryū slammed his fist down into the Prime’s needle-sword, splitting it. Its death throes were much swifter than its wielder’s.

Laughing wickedly, he turned to the others, then frowned, though it would likely have been lost to them. They stared agog, horrified. Both Durethi and Itaku brandished steel, and Kaileena cowered in Rairakku’s arms.

Shedding his true form, Ryū pulled his wakizashi from his chest, doubling over with the exertion of such much power flowing out of him. Silence stretched, as they seemed to re-evaluate him, and what threat he might pose to them.

“I figured out my sword's enchantment...but that...” Durethi eventually said, hesitant, “That’s just something else altogether.”

He nodded, “Had to die again to figure it out. But I’m back...and we can finish this journey. Together.”

Kaileena passed him, and he turned, to find her kneeling by Golem’s prone form, more a shapeless lump of clay than anything else.

“He was my last connection to my father.” she said, her voice breaking, “I...-”

He held her from behind, then turned her to face him, muffling her cries as she buried her head against him. Rairakku didn’t like that; her body was tense as a bowstring. He knew why.

“I won’t hurt her, milady.” he added, for her benefit, “What I am cannot harm her.”

Kaileena stilled, looked up to him, confused, and he smiled, “I am the fire that clears the forest. And you are the flower that blooms amid its ashes, heralding new life. It is for you that I burn, and from me you cannot be burned.”

“We are running short on time.” Itaku said, rising to his feet unsteadily and favoring his abdomen, “Yokai awaits.”

Surthath advanced his sapphire-chalcedony piece into position, and the warrior pieces followed; ruby, smoky quartz, and shale, respectively, beside a chalcedony piece that was not entirely his to control.

And a secret, hidden piece in reserve.

How would Dur’Artoth counter this? He intertwined his fingers, his challenge played.

For the moment, the outcome was beyond his reach. They were beyond his reach. He’d prepared them for this, guided them, with the knowledge that everything hung upon the balance of their actions as much as his. The fight was theirs to win, now.

What would happen…?

They found Yokai in the next, upper chamber of the tower.

He wasn’t at all what she’d expected. Like the Hitorigami, he looked more exhausted and forlorn than threatening. He was thin, a little pale, and had a very angular face, matted brown hair, tangled and unkempt, odd amber eyes, and from the point of his ears she assumed he was at least part El’Dari.

In another place, in another situation, he would have seemed handsome, if a bit roguish. He wore a brown robe in the customary style, with a belt of many pouches and a bandoleer, likely containing reagents. He held a spear, but she knew magicka would be his greater weapon.

Yokai looked past the others and directly to her, meeting her eyes,

“I’m pleased that we can finally meet, Kaileena Kazeatari.” He said, then bowed gracefully, “You know well who I am. What I stand for; a free Teikoku. We enchanters have suffered enough for the sins of the past. You, a fellow enchanter, should understand.”

“I do.” Kaileena replied sadly, earning a stern look from Itaku, “I know why you’re angry. At the Hitorigami. At the Four Lords. At Teikoku. I was, too. I know too well those cold, accusatory stares. The judgment. The assumption that you’re something you’re not.”

She shook her head, “I can’t claim any moral high ground, since my only goal was to leave Teikoku; to escape my problems rather than face them. I see that now. But I’d be leaving behind others...others like us. Shunned. Alone. Afraid. I see now that I can do no such thing.”

She steadied herself, “I just wish it hadn’t taken nearly dying...three times now, to realize that? Two of them of your own doing?”

Yokai frowned, lowered his spear, “I wish they weren’t. I’ve watched you from afar. I didn’t want you to die. Now that you’re here I don’t have to. Only them.”

“Why?” Kaileena asked, and Yokai’s frown deepened, “Because there is no path to peace save in violence. The Reclamation justly ended the Dread Hammer’s influence, but that time is long passed. Teikoku’s rightful rulers must be restored.”

Kaileena frowned, “I agree that enchanters should be free. I agree that what the Hitorigami and the Pirate Lords have done is wrong...”

She paused, studying him, “But this...this is wrong as well. You cannot force peace. Peace can only be achieved when everyone is willing to embrace it, and each other. The Pirate Lords will not remain in power forever. The hatreds of the past recede, as they always do. Do not fight us. We are not your enemies.”

He considered that, conflicted.

“Not even you, Kodama?” he asked after some time, eyeing Rairakku, who scowled, “I am. But Anima’s doctrine asks of us to resist our darker impulses for the good of all. If you recant your foul deeds I will not challenge my sister in faith. I will accept your alliance.”

He shrugged, shaking his head, “Idealism... You are naive, to think those who profit from the servitude of enchanters would acknowledge their right to exist, let alone their right to self-determination. He who holds the shackles seldom unlocks them of their own accord. You would ask me to lay down my arms, in the hopes of the compassion of others. I am possessed of no such confidence. Kaileena...I would not ask you to fight for my cause; only to help me rebuild Teikoku after this is over. Will you not join me?”

She shook her head, “I cannot. I am sorry.”

Itaku advanced a step, “I will hear no more of this. Will you surrender?”

“No.” Yokai replied, and a disk of rippling energy formed under his feet and propelled him upward. Ryū pushed his twin wakizashi into his own chest and transformed into his phoenix-visage, ascending on fiery wings. Rairakku cast a barrier spell, and Itaku and Durethi held their position beside them.

“Come, Guardian!” Kaileena cried, calling upon her familiar, who emerged halfway from the lamp and began casting behind her. She also activated what offensive enchantments she had before summoning a pair of Turgon and a trio of ethereal daggers, hurling everything at Yokai, who battled Ryū in the air.

Yokai had not forgotten them, however, for a shower of stones fell from the ceiling and only Rairakku’s barrier spell saved them, deflecting it harmlessly aside. The constructs came in next, dozens of them, entering through the tower antechamber as they had.

Itaku was a whirlwind of steel as he met their charge, letting one attack flow seamlessly into the next. The constructs defended well, complementing each other’s movements, but suddenly Itaku ducked as Durethi lunged, impossibly fast, and ran one through while she stood crouched on the Commander’s shoulder.

As it collapsed, its core perforated, she somersaulted off and interposed herself between Itaku and the four constructs flanking on either side. It was then Itaku’s turn to sidestep around her and slice a homunculus through the shoulder and down to the thigh on the other end, using her body as a visual barrier until it was too late to react.

It was brilliant to behold; these two warriors who knew each other only for days but acted as if they’d fought together a lifetime, so synchronized were their attacks.

Kaileena, recovering from her awe, struck one with a new pair of summoned daggers, piercing its core. Arteth blasted one with a spell, manifesting as a tenebrous white beam, and it dissolved into dust. Kaileena felt a sudden jolt of adrenaline, and found her skin rippling with purple embers.

“It is called essence siphon.” he noted, “A new spell I invented, given time to study your Spell-Eater Strain.”

When it seemed her friends wouldn’t be overwhelmed, they oriented on Yokai, who had by then defeated her Turgon and grievously pressed Ryū, gaining the higher altitude and the space to cast freely.

Arteth hissed, casting an evocation, and a crimson beam fired over her shoulder, striking Yokai midair. To no effect.

Drawing all of the power from her Alchemist Stone ring, she funneled it to Arteth, “Can you levitate us? We are poor help from down here.”

Ryū attacked with all the fury he could muster, their weapons clashing with such impact the tower itself shook. He shrieked, opening his maw and breathing fire, and Yokai vanished, appearing several paces away.

Again? What is it with you people and fiery transformations?!” Yokai snarled, his levitating platform propelling him forward. They intertwined in a tailspin, each trying to gain leverage, every strike and parry displacing fire and rippling arcane energy.

Yokai looked past him, cursing, and Ryū broke away, in freefall, as Itaku and Durethi, airborne, harried him. His fiery wings slowed his descent, and Ryū circled back around, ascending by the aid of conjured thermal pockets.

Yokai broke away from the others, and dived low, intercepting him. The Vampyre spun backwards and met him in a mid-air flourish, snarling.

Arteth, still on ground level with Kaileena, rattled off a lengthy incantation, and a concentrated black beam struck Yokai, who clutched at his chest, a dozen luminous swords appearing and defending him as he recovered from whatever effect the spell had delivered.

The human-elf roared in mixed anger and pain, and Ryū was knocked back by a tangible field of force that erupted in all directions, hurling Itaku and Durethi away. A rippling bubble formed around him, Rairakku’s doing, no doubt preventing some secondary effect.

Die.” Yokai hissed, and the world went blank.

Kaileena screamed as a field of energy filled the tower, the ancestor seed absorbing whatever effect it may have contained. Her friends weren’t so lucky. Ryū came crashing down, smoking, his phoenix-mask and wings dissipating. Itaku was thrown into the wall, and fell two stone throws. He stirred, but didn’t get up.

Yokai vanished, then appeared right in front of her. A tangible barrier surrounded her, but Yokai thrust his spear right through, grazing her shoulder. She yelped in pain, Arteth reforming before her to take the next hit. He gasped as Yokai’s spear plunged into his chest, and vanished in a cloud of smoke.

Kaileena backpedaled, Durethi coming to her defense. She launched a pair of ethereal daggers, Durethi thrusting her sword. Yokai parried all three with his orbiting conjured swords, and thrust again.

Itaku stood up, vanished, and reappeared, swinging his katana, but was blown away by a wave of telekinetic force. The Ancestor Seed and Rairakku’s wards prevented any secondary damage.

Rairakku pulled her in from behind and flourished her scepter, and a field of light enveloped them, depositing them several paces away.

Yokai snarled, weathering Durethi’s and Itaku’s furious attacks and retaliating with his own. They bled from many wounds. He did not. Kaileena summoned another pair of Turgon, the former ones destroyed in the same terrible explosion that had defeated Ryū, and being comprised of something other than physical flesh they passed through Yokai’s swords and latched onto his body, tearing with wild abandon.

Arteth cast a powerful counterspell through her, flummoxing his next attack, which had been directed towards her, but he retaliated instantly with some manner of destructive enchantment, having no need to cast. The ancestor seed absorbed the strike…and…vanished!

“What have you done?!” she gasped, taking her pentacle staff in a firm grip. There was no answer, from either Yokai or Rairakku.

“Sister, lend me your magicka!” Kaileena cried, in a moment of inspiration, taking one of her horn-rings and placing it in the hand that held her staff. Yokai swatted aside Durethi and Itaku, and hurled his ethereal blades, just as Rairakku cast upon her directly, immolating her with purple flames, and Kaileena combined the effects of her ward and spell redirection with the influx of magicka.

The blades flew into her aegis, then right back out into Yokai’s surprised face. One went through his mouth and out the back of his head, the other seven or eight running through his chest, abdomen, and arms.

His weapons were essentially solidified magicka, which she’d discovered when they bypassed Rairakku’s physical defenses. He hadn’t summoned them so much as formed them from nothing, a feat normally impossible. His own power worked against him in this, for a reflection spell had the dual-effect of redirecting magickally-created items back at their wielder, and didn’t require a direct contest of wills...

Yokai screamed, his mutilated body still somehow functioning, and cast again his destructive explosion spell. Rairakku cried out, and collapsed, spent, as her wards prevented any lethal damage, as the others were hurled aside. None of them got back up. None of them even moved.

Yokai cried out, as his conjured swords dissipated and his grievous wounds regenerated. He collected himself, and eyed her.

“You have lost, girl! Look around you!” Yokai said, and Kaileena couldn’t gainsay him, Ryū still smoldering across the way in the crater he’d formed upon impact, Itaku, Durethi, and Rairakku all prone, either dead of near death. Arteth had been defeated by a spear through the chest, too weak to physically emerge again. She was alone, and too weak to cast any significant spell. The spell reflection had taken everything.

“Surrender. Such a brilliant mind and emerging talent, you could do so much for this world after I’m gone.” he continued, setting aside his spear, “Give up, Kaileena. Lay down your arms.”

How? How could they have lost, after all this?

Kaileena finally felt some of her wounds now that the adrenaline subsided; her shoulder was bleeding from a very deep gash, and at least two ribs and her left wrist were fractured from his repeated telekinesis. She hissed in pain, doubled over. Yokai leaned forward, as if to catch her, then thought better of it. She scowled at him.

“And what about all those people?” Kaileena stammered, wavering unsteadily, “…all those you’ve killed? All those you’re going to kill? Are they nothing to you?”

How could they lose to him? How could they allow themselves to lose?

Kaileena sighed; because it just wasn’t enough. Nothing shy of someone who’d amassed godly power could defeat him. Nothing but...

An idea formed, and Kaileena forced it somewhere deep within her where Arteth couldn’t find it.

What are you doing?” he asked, but she pushed him away, focusing. She drained the energy from her active enchantments and funneled it into her Alchemist Stone ring, imbuing it with a true effect, one that only such a powerful item could hold.

Kaileena…” Arteth prodded, now more focused on her than the enemy. Yokai grinned, perhaps sensing her intent, or perhaps thinking she was about to surrender.

“You are a god, are you not?” Kaileena asked, dropping her staff and advancing slowly, “That was the point of all this?

Yokai nodded matter-of-factly, walking closer as well, until there was only a hand span between them.

“Until you spend that power.” she continued, “You’re practically invincible.”

Again, Yokai nodded. Her body was shaking…his was very still.

No, Kaileena, No!” Arteth cried, tearing his arm out of the lamp, working against the bindings that held his soul inside it. Yokai’s spear appeared in his hand, and he thrust into her. Kaileena didn’t try to dodge it. She took the hit but managed to press her hand against Yokai’s underbelly, her claws gouging a petty wound, just enough to draw blood. Just enough to connect them via blood magicka.

She activated the new enchantment in her ring, amplifying her Spell-Eater Strain a hundred-fold.

Kaileena screamed, her entire body immolating in purple fire. His power flowed into her, the power to reshape the worlds, annihilate whole armies, and perhaps, offer new life. For knowing that wholly carrying such raw, violent magicka in her body for even a moment would kill her, she acted only as a conduit, connecting Yokai’s body and Arteth’s lamp, and drawing from one, to the other.

No! Not for me!” Arteth screamed, forcing himself further and further out of the lamp, his body becoming more and more tangible, “You cannot! Stop! Please!

Itaku felt pain, slight at first but increasing in intensity with every new breath.

Good.” he thought to himself; he was still alive. He opened his eyes, blinking dazedly. He tried to sit up, but both his knees were broken and all he could do was roll onto his side. He heard screams; two men, one woman. He felt a whoosh of displaced air and pressure, then they went silent.

He saw… Yokai, prone, a smoldering hole in his chest. Itaku smiled, confident in the knowledge that if he would die, he would do so with his mission fulfilled.

Then he saw something that didn’t make him smile. Arteth…was whole, kneeling, cradling Kaileena in his arms. He was sobbing.

Itaku groaned, forcing himself to crawl forward, taking in what details he could. Her eyes were open, but they were unfocused, her kimono stained with blood.

You weren’t supposed to die…” Arteth moaned, gently stroking her head, “Especially not for a monster like me.”

Tears rolled down the corners of his eyes, and Itaku tried in vain to speak. Kaileena blinked, unseeing, and smiled weakly, “Not a monster. I see the good in you…and I know you deserve a second chance.”

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