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

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Chapter 2

The figures stood in two columns on either side in a darkly lit hall, shrouded in black robes. They didn’t speak. He couldn’t even see their faces, but Ryū knew what they wanted from him.

They were the servants of the World Serpent, calling him to the afterlife.

He walked between them, garbed in the very same robes, his twin wakizashi sheathed at his back. Their names were Hyosho and Kaminari, ice and lightning. For some reason he couldn’t explain, the moment they’d been forged the names impressed upon him, as if the blades had demanded them.

At the end of the hallway, the walls began to warp and twist, as if melting, and eventually, only darkness lay before him. The guardians beamed with approval, perhaps eager to at last finish their duty of ferrying him to the other side. He should have died, so many times… Why had he not?

“They need me. I swore an oath to protect them.” Ryū whispered, and the Silkrit knew it to be true.

He stopped, as he always did, just before the darkness became too dense even to see with his attuned eyes, and the guardians tensed with agitation.

Ryū shook his head, “I cannot join you Oki, not yet. I still have a purpose”.

They shrieked; an unnatural, unspeakable keening that forced him to his knees, and his vision darkened. And in an instant they were gone, leaving him alone as the hallway faded away.

Ryū woke, idly pawing at the leather pouch hanging from his neck. Within it lay dust taken from the wastes, in the exact spot of his death.

“Dusk falls, Sir.” Shirudo whispered, crouching in the corner of the subterranean cavern. Ryū had long given up on asking his friend not to call him that...

He sighed, rose, and collected his wakizashi and helm from beside the fire, which had settled into burning coals several hours prior, more likely than not. He’d forged them himself, melting down the mithril breastplate a Skraul general had worn before he’d gleefully torn out its heart.

The helm, more a mask, was crafted in the likeness of a Dragon, forged of that same rare material. Ryū wore no breastplate or coat of mail, for it interfered with his natural flexibility and agility, favoring only a pair of knee-length cloth leggings, bracers, ankleplates, and a slim black cloak. His torso was bare, allowing all to see the scars; a testament of the pain he’d endured to become what he was, and sufficiently garbed, he grinned fiercely at his lieutenant, “Then the hunt continues”.

Shirudo nodded, applying black paint to match the irregular splotches along his silver-grey skin, quite the contrast to his own. Ryū’s transformation had rendered him…different, the ivory nubs along his bow had expanded into wicked, curling horns, and much of his mane of feathers had darkened or fallen out. His skin had lost its silvery luster, and was now a dull copper-red like drying blood.

Ryū left the cavern, to where the others were waiting, every one armed with spears, blades, and explosives scavenged from the enemy.

None made eye contact, for such was the Silkrit way; death was not acknowledged. Ryū was cursed, tainted by the Skraul and doomed to an eternity as a vampyre. Though faster, stronger, and more resistant to injury than his living kin, the sun, the giver of light, the symbol of the warm embrace of the World Serpent, their first and only true god, now judged him unworthy. In its light, his flesh would burn until nothing but a pile of ash remained. Likewise, he could not cross running water in safety, and couldn’t even move without the boon of his grave dust.

And he would never die...never be given peace and the place beside Oki he so desired. That was the greatest cruelty, for he was a separate thing from the cycle of life and death, in a world he no longer knew and in fact despised.

The rainforests of his homeland had been gradually reduced to desert in the last few centuries by both the Karu; a barbaric toad race that had nearly annihilated the Silkrit, and the foul sorcery of the vampyric Skraul, their new masters. Both now the prey of Ryū and his growing band of maniacs, cutthroats, and freedom fighters. As hunter-soldiers of the Te Fukushu, their duty was to destroy all enemies of their people, and Ryū and his followers had skirted the settlements for years now, raiding where they could, hiding when they couldn’t, always wary of the Skraul, whose powers dwarfed even his.

But tonight, they did not hide. They hunted. Soon enough, the enemy outpost became visible on the fading horizon; a small plantation which held no less that twelve of his people as slaves; cattle to the lusts of the Vampyres and the petty cruelties of the Karu. Ryū reached the surrounding wall first, and scaled the flat stone surface with no effort, thanks to his extendable black nails which could dig into any surface. Another “gift” from his condition.

He could smell a Karu above, a slave as much as his people were but also an enforcer that would raise an alarm given the chance. Just below the lip of the battlement, Ryū tensed, and sprang. As he reached the top he spun horizontally while drawing his wakizashi in a mid-air flourish, decapitating the brute in a single swing.

Carrying his momentum, the Vampyre darted through the battlement as his feet touched down, his blades seething with pulses of intense cold or with crackles of electricity that created thin rivulets of steam. There were at least seven guards within the plantation currently, as his subordinates had uncovered, and Ryū knew most would be in the next room at this hour.

He kicked down the reinforced door into the barracks, the metal hinges bending inward on impact with sharp retort. Seven indeed in all. Against the monster he’d become there was no worry. His men would free the slaves.

Ryū crossed several paces in a single step, running through one of the creatures mid-stride, all the while withdrawing two balanced daggers which met the two at the end of the hall in that same instant, who fell to the ground, thrashing, the small weapons buried pommel-deep in their throats. His wakizashi blazing, the Vampyre leaped onto a seated toad man, and crosscut its throat, the x-mark spewing vile green blood which splattered his bare chest. The creatures were upon him then, each carrying a wicked iron cleaver.

The Vampyre arched his back as the blades fell upon him, and kicked the post of the seat, knocking him to floor level. He spun his blades in a twisting, spinning flourish, hamstringing the closest brute while forcing the other’s momentum too far out and overbalancing it.

Ryū found his feet in a forward somersault, blades in reverse grip, and ducked under a Karu’s arms while slicing outward and upward. The wakizashi parted bone, ringing with delight as they drank in fresh blood, and the toad man collapsed in a screaming heap, both arms severed at the elbow. Ryū fell back into a defensive posture when the next wretch charged with clumsy overhead swings, then outright dodging to avoid a series of more focused two-handed strikes.

The Vampyre ducked and counterattacked, bringing his blades to bear in a double-impaling motion, breaking the guard of the Karu as it tried to abort its attack and parry, then he delivered a swiping kick which struck both it and the guard on the left.

As the three of them met on the floor, Ryū removed his mask and sank his fangs into the closest brute, feeding even as he tore out its throat. The remaining toad man struggled to its feet, whimpering, just in time to see Ryū tear off its compatriot’s head.

Ryū hissed and struck the beast with the severed head, and his blades met its heart before the gruesome diversion even landed.

One of his Te Fukushu followers emerged from the door he had burst through, and Ryū eyed him, snarling, shivering, the blood frenzy still holding him in sway.

“We have freed our brothers and sisters in chains in the slave’s quarters, but at least one or two are unaccounted for. We await your word to break into the manse.”

Nodding, though the words barely registered, Ryū tongued his fangs and donned his mask, ashamed to be seen in such a state without it. The regret and self-loathing could wait until the task was finished.

They had caught the vampyres unawares, and Ryū would finish the job by defeating the masters of the plantation and stringing them up by their entrails to burn alive in the sun.

Business as usual.

He passed the slaves on the way to the manor proper, all of which bore ragged scars akin to his own, their gazes vacant and cowed from the abuse they’d endured. The Skraul desired Silkrit slaves for the extraction of Vitrium, blood drawn exclusively through torture, brutalizing and mutilating his people for sustenance. The missing slaves were likely being tortured at that very moment…

The manor itself, a three-floored wooden affair, was already being prepared for burning, his fellow Te Fukushu spreading explosives fortified by the on-hand fertilizer, while a second detachment gathered what they could from the stores of food, destroying what they couldn’t carry. The Te Fukushu had survived this long by not daring to seize Skraul land, only ruining it. If the vampyres ever caught wise of their camp, Ryū and his fellows would be crushed. Most of their people were hidden in the mountains, where it was safe, and the Te Fukushu moved positions every week or so.

His fellows blew down the iron door to the undercroft of the Manse with a series of controlled explosives. Before the dust cleared, Ryū was already charging in, Hyosho and Kaminari readied. The long descending stairwell following the hallway ended in a corridor with disturbing similarity to his dream. At the end there was a door; akin to the darkness of his death, but Ryū was not deterred. He struck the second iron door with his palm, and it rocketed off of its hinges and sailed through rows of thick drapes. When the veils parted, not even the curse of undeath could numb him to what he saw. A female Silkrit, no older than twenty seasons, lay half-dissected atop an altar, her lungs poking out of her parted rib-cage. They rose and fell unsteadily...

The two Skraul looming over her gaped at his entrance, a male and female; the mating pair that lorded over the compound, but recovered quickly and charged him with scalpels and a surgical saw. The vampyres were bipedal, like him, but with rounded faces with pointed ears, mammalian skin as black as oil, hands akin to claws and teeth like needles, flowing grey and black fur from the tops of their heads, and eyes that were milky white and lidless. The vampyres rushed him, seeking to use their unnatural speed to their advantage, but to their surprise Ryū was able to follow and react to them with the same unnatural grace, as he parried both of their strikes simultaneously.

“You are…” one of them hissed, a moment before Ryū caved in its skull with the pommel and slashed its throat for good measure. “One of you?” Ryū replied, “Never”. The female tried to flee; perhaps unused to an opponent of equal measure, and Ryū fought the revulsion threatening to overtake him, accepting the rage instead.

“Like you? I am not like you… I am not!” he snarled, hamstringing her, then taking his swords in reverse grip and plunging them into her spine, paralyzing her. A double-strike to the neck severed her head.

“I’m not like you.” Ryū hissed, though it rang hollow even to him, turning away. He rushed to the female, his thoughts of tormenting the masters long forgotten, and heard her heartbeat, felt her pulse even at five paces. She was still alive, if barely so. Her eyes were glazed, unfocused. If she was even aware of his presence she didn’t show it. He stood over her, undoing the binds around her wrists. She was so pale…

“Forgive me for this, my dear, but I must act if you are to live…” Ryū whispered in her ear-slit, as he laid his wakizashi across his arm, slicing horizontally in a clean swipe. His blood, less his own and more the restorative Vitrium he’d recently consumed, fell into the gaping hole in her chest, bubbling as it made contact. Her eyes widened in horrified awareness, and she screamed, wheezing and spitting blood, but he held down her hands with his own, not wanting her flailing to interrupt the process.

As he watched, her ribs began to reform themselves around her organs, her heart beating frantically as it was concealed by a protective sheath of tissue. Her muscles re-knit, closing the wound further, and the skin around her chest swelled over that, leaving a smooth surface. In a matter of moments, little remained of the wound but an uneven ridge of bone and a thin, pale scar, and the female was sobbing more than screaming.

That wound he could do nothing for…

“Are there others?” Ryū asked, releasing the female from his hold and into the arms of living Silkrit, who could better comfort her.

“There is one other, Sir. He…cannot be helped.” Shirudo stammered as he approached the Vampyre’s flank, “They…burned him”.

Ryū blinked, confused, “Why did they burn him? Vitrium cannot be extracted in that way, can it?”

“So this is what you’ve been hiding all this time.” Hana said, still standing awkwardly in the doorway. While she’d once been a milkmaid for Gatsuyu, Shinabi had later stopped her from entering his home after finding Kaileena. But he needed her, and he had to tell someone. The two of them were quickly becoming too much for him to handle alone.

Barely over three years of age, his daughter was at the point of being fully able to walk, climb, and work her way into the cupboards. Gatsuyu, now four years of age, needed his first lessons in the alphabet and speech, and Shinabi hadn’t written in decades…

“Please don’t call her “this”.” He replied sourly, walking over to his daughter, “Come, my dear, come to Sonkun, come to Father.”

Timid at first, she eyed Hana, which she obviously saw as an intruder, her tail lashing the floor, but submitted, waddling over to him. He scooped her up in his arms, letting her tail wrap about his elbow, and brought her to Hana, “I need help to take care of both of them, and they have no mother. She is completely harmless, nothing but a particularly active babe”.

Hana didn’t seem convinced.

“Right now, maybe. But her teeth are sharp, and her nails will be claws. What happens when she is as big as us? Or bigger?” she parried, finally crossing the threshold into his home, “We don’t even know where she came from, or who her people are. There is nothing to suggest that she-”

“Look at her, Hana!” Shinabi interrupted, holding up his daughter, who whimpered plaintively, “Does this look like the face of a killer? Of a predator? Please…”

She sighed, holding her hands out in surrender. Shinabi handed Kaileena over, who lay there in her grip without a fuss.

“You sure do know how to get your way, Shinabi…” Hana mused, cradling his daughter gingerly, and Kaileena made a sound akin to a yawn, slowly blinking with both horizontal and vertical lids, “What do you plan to do when they start running around?”

He waved his hand dismissively, “The people of Kazeatari are good-natured and moderate, just like the rest of the inner-land communities. This far from the Pirate Lords or the Karyudo Kisai, Kaileena will have nothing to fear…they will accept her, in time."

“I hope you’re right, and that nobody calls upon the Karyudo Kisai. They kill sorts far less strange than this”.

Looking upon the face of his child, contentedly nuzzled in Hana’s arms, Shinabi found he shared her sentiments wholeheartedly…

The necropolis of Baleblood was a thing of looming towers and deep chasms; all dark ore and spikes and hard angles. Half-rotted corpses of Silkrit and insubordinate Karu hung from many of them. It was a beautiful sight. Kyokan felt a charge in the air, a ripple in reality, as a sacrifice was made nearby to the Dread Hammer, God Death, patron of his kind. The Skraul smiled a mouthful of fangs.

Tonight was an especially joyous affair, for the Royal Line was convening that very moment, deciding the fate of the Te Fukushu rebellion. What would better serve to cow the worthless Silkrit slaves; their complete eradication, the public sacrifices of their leaders, or to merely re-enslave them…showing the inescapable nature of bondage?

All winning propositions, but Kyokan cared not whatever they chose. As a Prime, his desires weren’t so complex as the management of the realm, but merely to sow death and misery throughout the multi-verse. Until all bowed to the One True God. His interest was to destroy, rape, ravage, and slaughter.

Silkrit, Karu, even other, lesser Skraul, shied from him as he passed. None dared hinder him, inconvenience him in any way, for to do so was to invite terrible death. If not his darksteel breastplate or his wide, toothy grin, it was the weapon sheathed at his belt that gave them the most to fear. His blade, Dokuja, was wrought of the very purest darksteel recovered from the ruinous aftermath of the Dreadborne War, and was Blood-Forged, possessed of a powerful and unique enchantment tailored to him. Soon, perhaps he would have a worthy opponent who would taste its bite…

“Sir…” Shirudo said, likely not for the first time, and Ryū shook away his contemplation, returning his attention to the present.

“The mountain has fallen, then.” Ryū said, finally acknowledging Shirudo, “How many escaped?” to which Shirudo frowned, his forked tongue flicking out in agitation, “About a third; mostly noncombatants. They had to leave most of the supplies during the rout. With only our own meager supply of stores, it will be a difficult winter.”

The crux of the matter; they didn’t have nearly enough to feed themselves and the influx of refugees. Ryū couldn’t distract himself with grief. He needed a solution and quickly, lest his rebellion be ground to a halt and dismantled by attrition, “We need a new base of operations. Something more defensible”. Shirudo sniffed, his tail lashing, “Why? The Skraul would find it sooner or later, and either raze it to oblivion or enslave those within. For that matter, where would we build anything in this wasteland? The only sources of food and water are controlled by the Skraul”.

Ryū had little answer for him, merely shrugging, “I see only the solution, not the means to achieve it. A long march does no favors for the weaker of us; the elders, the hatchlings, and the sickly. Perhaps…we should seek a Kamiyonanayo”.

Tarkiri, another warrior of the Te Fukushu, rose in a fury, hissing, “You think we should look for one of those damned demons for help? They splintered our race! If we had been left alone we -”

“We what?!” Ryū hissed right back, “We could have driven back the Karu in the war?! We’d lost, it was all but over. All the Kamiyonanayo had done was offer us survival and safe haven in their world, to which many took, in return for limited servitude. And it was the Dread Hammer and his damned Skraul who subdued and enslaved us. It is the Skraul, not the Kamiyonanayo, that are to blame for this”.

Tarkiri slumped, despondent, returning to his cross-legged position on the dirt floor. Not out of any sense of being proven wrong, Ryū noted. Tarkiri would enter no argument unless he had something to gain from it... Semantics was not something either of them considered worthwhile enough to constitute infighting. There were enemies enough already.

“We must succeed in creating a safe haven for the Silkrit. If we fail, we will never be free of this endless cycle of fear and death. We will never have peace.” Ryū continued, having against his better judgment forsaken his mask. Tarkiri glowered at him, “And what of you, half-breed? What will you do if we have peace? Blood only flows in times of war."

Shirudo scowled, already pulling free his yew bow, but Ryū stopped him with a stern glance, then, “I will fight, and win. Then I will die. That is my destiny. Fear not for the world that we create, for I know I will have no place in it. It is decided; when dusk falls you will take our fight to the next target, and I will seek a Kamiyonanayo. Perhaps it will see a solution that I simply do not”.

Six years…six years spent regaining his former power, if not his influence. Yokai pored over the tome he’d purchased from a wayward vendor, having spent well over two of those six years tracking the bastard down. Knowing the cripple to be a plant for the Karyudo Kisai, Yokai had eliminated him, discretely; it would take months for anyone to find the pieces he’d sunken into the lake.

The tome before him, “The Vagaries of the Will to Power”, detailed extra-planar entities conjured or merely observed throughout known history, as well as the gifts bestowed, willingly or not, from said entities. Most of the material was nonsense, probably straight from the quill of one of the enchanter-hunters of the Hitorigami’s secret police, but…this verse, on the matter of profane rituals, described extracting mortal blood through torture and purifying the brew, terming it Vitrium. It was very accurate. Very out of place. Very in line with his own studies. The Hitorigami would never have authorized such a suggestion to rogue enchanters…

Yokai decided he might have been overzealous in his suspicions; that the text might in fact be valid.

Vitrium. Obviously, there are even more practical applications with it. But my veins cannot produce such amounts... Perhaps I should find a test subject…” Yokai mused, pondering the village girl that had looked at him overlong the other day in the market. No, that would be too obvious, as the yokels would surely note his taking to her, and would seek him out first. “A matter for further thought, then.” He muttered, seeking out further notes, before-

“This…what is…” Yokai stammered, stumbling upon a passage known as “The Ley-Line Correspondence”, dates in time related to significant planetary and spatial alignments. Yokai cursed; the cripple must have been a rogue enchanter himself, transporting vital resources to his kin. What a waste. This is what the fear of the Karyudo Kisai had done to him. The paranoia. Among other things, made him a proper murderer, not of pathetic, worthless, powerless villagers, but a practitioner like himself!

“Just one more act of penance…to save these lands, it had to be done.” he sighed, studying the later dates, and finding that a significant event was inscribed to occur within his lifetime. In fact, it was not far off, considering. Termed the “Eternal Return”, the event revolved around the otherworldly Sixth Element, ever-flowing through space all throughout the mortal plane, as well as the planes occupied by the Kamiyonanayo, and a sparsely accounted dimension merely dubbed “Aether”. In the very rarest of occasions, these veins of Sixth Element would split and recombine in mysterious ways, changing planet’s orbits, creating supernovas and black holes, and even altering the flow of time itself. Through a proper ritual, a powerful enchanter could theoretically access this flow of power as they would with more mundane sources like heat or magnetism, allowing the energy to augment their own abilities.

The cost would be terrible, but…this event…it could allow Yokai to achieve everything he had dreamed of! With such power, he could overthrow the Hitorigami, the Pirate Lords, and all those who dared enslave his kind. With such power, he could create a new society, filled with people worthy to inhabit it!

“Tengu…is this what you wanted of me? Is this why you allowed our compact?” Yokai asked, and somewhere deep in his mind, where his mind wasn’t entirely his anymore, was a sense of overwhelming approval.

“So be it then.” he whispered, breathless, “I will take this power for my own. At long last, we enchanters will have justice. At long last, my people will be free”.

Yokai feverishly compiled his notes, marking the exact passages he’d need for the ritual, and considered again the matter of obtaining or harvesting the Vitrium needed for this grand spell that would unbalance and remake the world.

“And how long has he been unaccounted for?” The Hitorigami said wearily from his throne, secluded behind several veils held up by intricate metal framework.

Itaku, Commander of the Karyudo Kisai, knelt at the bottom of a short but angular set of stairs, not daring to lift his head, more in part due to his failure than prostration. He was no commoner, after all!

“Six Years. There have been sightings of him, though most of these were false alarms. He has eluded us so far, avoiding direct confrontation, declining to cast any traceable enchantments. We believe he may even be posing as a common peasant, taking no overt actions whatsoever.”

“That is unfortunate, Commander. I thought you capable of dealing with one stray enchanter, no matter how dangerous. Was I mistaken by elevating you so quickly?”

Itaku drew the tanto hanging from his belt, just above his dai-katana, “If you would ask it of me, I will offer you my life”.

He pointed the tip to his abdomen, but the Hitorigami cleared his throat, “No, Commander, that is not the price I ask. Find him! Deliver this Yokai to justice. I have a good idea the trouble that he could bring about, and Teikoku cannot suffer it."

“Sir?” Itaku asked, rising to his feet, and the Hitorigami paused thoughtfully, framing his next words carefully, “If the enchanters, specifically those of a violent and criminal disposition, think us weak enough that they can evade us, the Renmei Kisai will collapse upon itself, and more like Yokai will spread throughout the land. Is the Colossus leading the pursuit?”

Itaku nodded.

“Good. See to it he is successful, and your rewards shall be even greater than the last. Good day, Commander.”

“He is very gracious."

Itaku turned to his second-lieutenant, Maki, stealth operative and master of the art of Tanuki-Gakure, who leaned on a nearby fence, grinning. His hair and facial growth had been dyed a slate grey, and the pronounced limp was very convincing, combining well with his ragged peasant garb that hid his Kusarigama, “He wouldn’t let many keep their head after something like this."

“I don’t have time for your games, Second.” Itaku replied dryly, as always regretting his decision to elevate a man such as this.

“Then maybe you have time for this; my monthly report. I heard rumors from very reliable sources that a strange cult was spotted near Fusestu. They bore the mark of the Dread Hammer”.

Maki chuckled at his pronouncement, idly twirling his cane, which may have been a blow-dart tube.

“The Dread Hammer, you say?” Itaku asked, “Grim tidings, we do not need a repeat of the Reclamation. See them routed and put to torch."

The Reclamation... Just over half a century ago, followers of the Totoanatsukami Dur’Artoth had dissolved the governing body of Teikoku, assassinating the leader of the original Renmei Kisai. At the time enchanters had held great sway, in both political and military sense. The Reclamation; the dissolution of the Renmei Kisai, the enslavement of enchanters, and the restoration of the rightful Hitorigami, had not yet washed the stain of those dark days from memory. No follower of Dur’Artoth could be tolerated to live. Not. A. One.

He turned to leave, but Maki didn’t budge. “Something else you need to add to the report?” Itaku asked, and the agent smiled a mouthful of ruined teeth; a very real indicator of his previous drug addiction, “We found a fellow less than a week ago that might have been a member; myself and a few good men. Old, very old, and ragged. Displeasing to the eye, you might say. The others were about to dismiss him as mad when we found him preaching of the end of the world, but then the wretch drew a dagger and attacked us! It took seven men and four lives for us to subdue him, and before we tried tor-umm, interrogating him, he swallowed something, poison, no doubt, and he smiled. He smiled as he died… We found a most peculiar item on his person; a mask made of iron. It covered the eyes as well, so I assumed that it was intended for torture. But…whenever I find tales of these people, these cultists, they were described wearing these masks, or approximations of them. They have to be enchanted, but no one at the Renmei Kisai could identify any unusual properties. It is…disturbing”.

Itaku nodded, processing the information, “Why was this never brought to my attention before now?” he asked, to which Maki lost a bit of his smile.

“Because the mask, as well as any enchanters who examined it, all vanished. They had bindings that kept them within the boundaries of the Renmei Kisai fortress, ones that could only be removed by a Karyudo Kisai agent. I couldn’t reach you before this point, with Yokai having been on the loose…I don’t like the implications, commander. Not at all."

Traitors…the thought boiled his blood. The Karyudo Kisai were brothers in arms, united against the remains of the ancient tyranny of the Dread Hammer. They were the chosen weapons of the Hitorigami. For someone to betray that sense of brotherhood…

“Very well, see to these cultists. I will try to research more on this and other matters”.

Snowflakes fell from a bright blue sky. Kaileena winced as the flakes landed against her face, because they were very cold, and after a moment or two, if she didn’t brush them away, they turned into water, which dripped down her snout and made her want to sneeze. “Come here, my dear. You won’t have long to try the hot springs if you stand around.” Father chided behind her, and she jumped reflexively. She’d been thinking really hard that while each flake of snow was a different shape; she could see that if she looked hard enough, when they melted they became water drops that all looked the same. It seemed important, somehow.

“Okay!” Kaileena replied happily, shrugging away the mysteries of snowflakes and running over to the pools of steaming water. She took off most of her clothes (while Father and Brother had their backs turned, of course), and dived into the water. She threw herself back up, her head breaking through, and spat out a mouthful of yucky hot water, her eyes clamped shut.

“That’s what you get for coming in so quickly.” Father scolded, but he was smiling so he wasn’t really mad. The pool was really big, and Father and Brother were a ways away, so Kaileena swam around for a while, her head feeling a little fuzzy from the warmth. She lashed her tail to swim faster, and something dawned on her. “Father…?” she asked, distracted by trying to count the strands of steam that came off of her arm when she brought it above the water, “Why do I have a tail and you do not?” to which Father looked at her strangely.

“You are different, my dear. But that’s alright.” Father replied, “That just means you’re special”.

She was different…in a lot of ways. The tail was one thing, her blue skin was another, and another still was her “hair”. The fuzzy stalks on the top of her head were growing, turning thick and wide. Father thought they looked like baby bird feathers…was she going to have feathers on her head?

Still, special sounded nice, so Kaileena just swam, occasionally teasing brother by splashing water at him. Brother acted like he was mad by splashing water back, but he was smiling too.

“You are almost seven seasons old, Kaileena. Some manners shouldn’t be too hard for you…” Father jested, calmly sitting in the water. Kaileena shrugged and tried to just sit too, but she was having too much fun so she kept splashing water.

Father smiled, and started to climb out, and she and Brother turned away. Kaileena turned away mostly but still saw him get out, and she noticed that he did have a tail, but it was just on the wrong side!

Brother swam over, “You know, Father is going to take us all to the village soon. What do you think is there?” which made Kaileena think, “Well, he said they had lots of houses, and one really big house where everyone goes sometimes. Do you think the food is bigger, too?”

Brother laughed, “No, I meant there will be other kids to play with, too. Do you think they will want to play hide-and-hunt?” to which Kaileena couldn’t say. Maybe they would. “Maybe there will be flowers too. There aren’t many here.” Kaileena added, Brother’s enthusiasm rubbing off on her. She'd found a nice blue flower once, but it got dried up. Father said she should have put it in a pot, and she still wanted to find another like it and keep it forever.

“You like flowers too much, sister. Maybe they will have rocks instead."

“You meanie! You have plenty of rocks, and I don’t have any flowers.” Kaileena huffed, crossing her arms.

“Yeah, yeah. Let’s go see where Father went.” Brother replied, running off to get his clothes. She sighed, and got out too, looking for her weathered brown kimono. She was going to get to see Kazeatari soon, and maybe it would be fun…

Ryū crept through the crowded streets of the Skraul necropolis known as Dormortem, his cowl low over his face. The Silkrit and Karu slaves poured through the narrow, winding alleyways, too cowed by fear of the masters to take any note of him. Nevertheless, the Vampyre made sure none saw his red skin. It worked to his advantage the fact that most Silkrit slaves were forced to wear cloaks in order to hide their scars, for such things displeased the Skraul. Though both species were subjugated, the Karu did not produce blood capable of conversion into Vitrium, and were thus elevated above his people.

But that was soon to change. Under his careful tutelage, the Te Fukushu had been elevated from an inconsequential uprising into a rebellion numbering in the hundreds. His mask had become a symbol of fear to the Skraul, and a symbol of strength for his own people. But for now…they would have to continue without him for a time.

Ryū arrived at his destination, following the trail steeped into his blood memories; images and sensations passed down by whichever Skraul had sired him. Having the ability to access these genetic memories at will, he knew there had once been an altar to the Totoanatsukami known as Surthath nearby, though the Skraul had long ago desecrated it. There might be a lingering trace of magicka that would allow him to commune with the deity, or his Kamiyonanayo offspring.

At least, that was his hope.

As he approached the site, Ryū saw that the grounds had been plowed over, and now served as a sty for the unintelligent animal species called Nyeae that the Silkrit relied upon for food. The intended dark irony wasn’t lost on him

When no one was looking, the Vampyre leaped over the locked gate, and by the time the cattle panicked at his presence, he was already crouching out of sight of anyone outside. He tore up loose dirt, sniffing the air for traces of what he sought. There was little left to dig out. From what he recalled, the actual shrine, a mass of silver carved into the likeness of an iris, had been melted down and poured down the throats of the worshipers that had been captured. That was irrelevant, he knew, because he wasn’t looking for an item, specifically. The Gods, the Totoanatsukami, did not pour their influence into such trinkets; theirs was a power all to itself, which manifested when summoned and, more importantly, lingered for great periods of time. No matter what the vampyres had done, the power of Surthath would linger wherever his avatar had been summoned. It had to.

Suddenly, he didn’t feel that he was alone. Ryū shivered, “Who is there?” to which he received no answer.

Clumps of soil fell through his fingers, but pale blue embers danced along his skin in their wake. Images impressed upon him; a city of radiant pillars resting atop an inverted mountain. A sequence of sparkling crystals. A blue eye, with a narrow, reptilian slit. He did not hear, but intuited, felt, a voice of such depth and intensity his entire body ached at its first utterance; “Seek the Way-Gate, and find the child. There is hope for you. Free her and my son, and claim it”.

Ryū blanched, his still heart nearly beating again at the thought. “What of my people?” he whispered, meek for the first time since his death.

Their fate is now yours. You must succeed, or all worlds will share the fate of this one”.

Abruptly, the presence faded away. He felt alone in that cattle pen once more. “No, wait!” Ryū begged, but the voice was gone. He ground the dirt, frustrated and tired, sighing, “The child, then. I will find the child.”

“Stop fussing over it!” Hana chided, idly pushing her hands away from the uncomfortable cloak Father had asked her to wear over her kimono. Kaileena huffed, but didn’t struggle any further.

“It makes my head itch.” She complained, forcing herself to not absently scratch at her feather-stalks, which had started growing again over the last few nights, “Are we going to the village now?”

“Soon. Soon, child. Hush now.” Hana said, and Kaileena groaned in discontent. She couldn’t hide how excited she was about this day, getting to see Kazeatari for the first time. Hana was from there.

Maybe there was going to be a party, and she was planning it! Father counted time by the months, twelve per year, and this was the month Kaileena’s name-day was celebrated on! She’d always enjoyed the mitarashi dango that he made, with rice and red bean paste…

Seeing Father and Brother walk out of the house, Kaileena tried to wait patiently for them, hardly able to stand still. Her tail lashed under the cloak, and Father waved them over, smiling.

“Is everyone ready then.” He asked, to which both she and Brother nodded, “Good. Now, I’d better not see either of you running out of my sight”. “Yes, Father.” Both she and Brother replied dutifully, and he patted them on their heads affectionately. Kaileena sniffed as her feather-hair itched again.

Now that everyone was ready they began the long walk to Kazeatari, following a dirt path through the winding woods around the house and into the deeper woods they couldn’t go to normally. It was still cold, but Kaileena knew spring was coming; she could smell the plants beginning to grow again.

Oh! She had to stop by a florist. Father had given her a few copper coins to buy something with, and that should be enough to get a nice potted one, maybe even a flower like the blue one she’d found once. Most people thought potted flowers were only for funerals, but she still liked them.

“Father, what does the village look like?” Kaileena asked, watching the light snowfall collect on the icy, dew-laden grass. Father smiled, “It is a very big place compared to our home, filled with many people; traders, farmers, and hunters. There is an inn for outsiders, and an embassy where the government officials reside. There is always a bustling trade, even if the attitude is a very relaxed one. You will like it, I think."

“If it’s so nice and we live so close...why have we not gone there before?” Brother asked, looking down at the ground, probably for interesting rocks to add to his collection.

Father just stared ahead, “Well…I wasn’t sure how friendly they would be to us. Kaileena?” He asked, “Do you remember when I said you were special?” to which she turned back to look at him.

“You are…very special, and some people might be frightened by that.” He finally said after a long pause, and Kaileena sniffed, stopping.

“They think I’m scary? Why?”

Hana took hold of her and embraced her, “Because they don’t know you, and they don’t know better, child. Don’t worry”.

Father smiled again, and Kaileena smiled back, and they were off again. She was not scary… They would see that, and everything would be fine.

Night was falling, and the raiding party was ready. He’d set up his position earlier than the rest, that he might observe the compound from up high. He’d crept to the top of the inner wall with the aid of a pair of climbing claws; metal plates strapped to his foot wraps and hands that sported thick barbed hooks. There, concealed by the shadows projected by the guard tower, he’d waited.

Shirudo felt for the telltale vibrations in the enchanted disc he wore across his neck as he made his final preparations. It was enchanted by a captive Skraul to carry simple messages along all similar devices, acting as a means for members of the Te Fukushu to relay orders and intelligence. He pondered Ryū’s departure as he readied himself to spring over the lip of the wall. Would his friend really find a Kamiyonanayo; an immortal servant of the Totoanatsukami, after centuries of their absence?

He guessed it didn’t matter at the present, and he chastised himself, for he needed very much to focus on the task at hand. They would break into the barracks of this fortress, a much larger complex than their last hit; a self-sustaining small village and forge for the arms and armor of the Karu slave armies.

Two additional teams had been called to assist. Shirudo would serve by picking off two tower watchers before an alarm could be raised. His arrows, soaked in deadly toxins, would paralyze instantly and kill soon after. It wouldn’t work on vampyres, of course, but the Karu would find its bite lethal.

His forked tongue tasting the air, Shirudo detected other Silkrit as they penetrated deeper into enemy territory through an open side-gate, left so thanks to a daring hunter that had posed as a slave on the inside for months. Four sided and high-walled, probably maintained entirely by Karu and Silkrit; there would likely be few Skraul in the fortress. Something they could handle without Ryū. And if that wasn’t the case…well…running was always an option. The slaves were the priority, and they could move on their own.

Shirudo tensed at the proper signal, and scaled the battlement, drawing his yew bow and firing at the furthest sentry first, and as the toad man fell by his arrow, he drew again and fired at the closer target, not having to worry about missing the first, more difficult, shot. From there, he hurled a grappling hook trailing tightly woven thread about the thickness of this thumb, and scaled the leftmost tower, closer to the interior of the fortress.

Taking the crow’s nest, Shirudo took aim, ready to deal with any nearby enemies if the alarm was raised. It was not, after a few long, tense moments, and he nodded grimly, certain that any ground-posted sentries were now dead.

His medallion came to life again, with a repeating pattern of three and two. Shirudo frowned, and scaled back down the tower and into the interior of the fortress, landing soundlessly atop the outer ridge of buildings. From there he landed softly in a pile of loose soil, and darted through the narrow alleys leading to the living quarters.

Shirudo saw a door ahead, ripped off its hinges, and he strung another arrow as he entered, wary of sentries. What he found instead was Tarkiri and three hunters in an empty bunkhouse.

“We found beds sized for our kin, seven in all, but no slaves.” the other Silkrit said dryly, kicking aside the severed head of a toad man. Shirudo frowned, as there was only one conclusion to be drawn; “The Undercroft”.

He dashed out of the bunkhouse, seeking out the central armory. His allies were already present, stepping over the corpses of the few guarding it, but Shirudo did not stop, could not stop. The armory was one open room, stocked with weapons of varying size and variety, armor, and Vitrium, and Shirudo grabbed a few vials of the latter, fearing he would need them. There was a corridor, and a spiral stairwell leading to the storage and torture chambers.

As an act of twisted humor, the Skraul often demanded that slaves fetch some trivial thing from such storage rooms, knowing that they would hear the screams from their fellows in adjacent rooms. A Silkrit was rarely killed through conventional torture, and thus his people would still be alive if that was their fate, but sacrifices to the Dread Hammer only ended one way…

Shirudo anticipated an attack, and fell to the left to dodge a strike from one of the side passages. The sentry, a toad man, lifted its weapon again, and Shirudo fired from his still strung bow, shooting the wretch in the throat. Knowing the exchange, though brief, had created a decent amount of noise, he forced himself on faster, praying he was not too late. He could hear Tarkiri and the others catching up, but he could also smell something that overpowered their scents; burning meat.

Shirudo entered the undercroft, the torture chamber, to find a massive iron sphere in the center of a wide room, unlit save for the kindling burning at floor level under the mysterious device. He didn’t understand at first, but the Silkrit saw a lever and pulley attached to a large barrel, and closer inspection revealed it was filled with water.

He pulled the lever quickly, upturning the barrel by a complex system of weights, and the water poured along depressions in the ground, flowing into the licking flames and extinguishing them. On the sphere, he noted a hatch.

“To me, now!” Shirudo yelled, hoping he was wrong. He tore off his rag tunic and wrapped it about his hands as he tried the hatch, trying to force it open. Tarkiri fell beside him, and they both tore it loose, opening the sphere and finding a wailing nightmare within.

The Silkrit slaves were trapped inside, burning alive.

Shirudo rushed in, ignoring the blinding pain as he stepped onto the hot iron floor, tearing loose a few of the smoldering victims and leading them outside of the infernal contraption.

Get them all out! All of them! Give them the vitrium!” He yelled, forcing a female’s lips open to apply the substance. Vitrium, wholly evil in its purpose and production, had admittedly potent healing properties, and Shirudo hoped his poor brothers and sisters could still be saved. As he dared another venture into the sphere, Shirudo noted the ones that didn’t move, including a hatchling no more than two years old. Its mother had sheltered it, protected it with her own cooking body, but in the end they had been fused together, molded into a sickly caricature of liquefied flesh.

Shirudo vomited, his bile sizzling as it struck the heated surface, and he fell out of the device, gasping for breath. He crumpled, numb. Again, the Skraul had seen fit to death by fire…why?! What terrible purpose could such an atrocity satisfy?!

Tarkiri slumped over next to him, watching the slowly rising chests of the victims splayed out on piles of rags and cloaks. “Perhaps Ryū was correct in assuming a higher motive; why else would they bother to make something like this?” Tarkiri asked dryly, placing a hand on Shirudo’s trembling shoulder.

“Is there no end to it…?” Shirudo moaned, his eyes welling with tears, knowing the image of that mother and child would haunt him for the rest of his days. If only he’d ordered the attack sooner! If only he’d-

Tarkiri shook his head, “Not until we end it, and we will”. With the living attended, a few agents removed the dead, wrapping them tightly in blankets taken from the living quarters.

There was a rustle behind them, and two hunters came forward, carrying a wounded Karu with them, green blood dripping from a gash in its brow and a deep, dark bruise on its temple. Tarkiri rose, scowling.

“Good work.” he replied, a vicious smile on his face, his tail curling as his thoughts visibly darkened. He strode over slowly, menacingly, put himself right in front of the slavering jowls of the toad man, and clutched its chin with two fingers, “I will ask only once, creature; what were you doing here? Why did the Skraul order this?”

“Why you think we not do it?” the Karu chuckled, licking his wide and toothless lips.

“I know because you lot are far too stupid to fathom something like this, and even if you were your Skraul masters would probably not allow such an undertaking for its own sake”.

The toad man snorted, “They kill me if I talk”.

Tarkiri smiled, “If you don’t talk you will die much slower. Put him into the sphere”. The toad man grimaced, and struggled against his captors, “No, not that! Not big ball!” it blurted dimly, lengths of flab and skin wriggling with his jowls.

“No!” Shirudo snapped, stopping them as they approached the torture device, “We are not like them, and we won’t hear him clearly from in there anyway. Cut his throat and dump him with the rest”.

The hunters nodded, and dragged the whimpering prisoner away. “Compassion will not save our people, Shirudo.” Tarkiri muttered, turning back to look upon the victims. Three were nearly ready to stand, moaning but coherent, but two had stopped moving altogether.

“If we become them, we are lost in any case.” Shirudo replied sadly, righting himself, fighting back the tears and reclaiming his usual impassive demeanor, “Ryū has their blood in him but he is still one of us, in mind and in spirit. If he can endure that, we must hold fast in kind."

“We shall see. I’ll take a few men to collect as many weapons as we can find, sir. Make sure these people will be fit to move soon. We need to be long gone by daybreak, and there must be nothing left for the Skraul to find but a smoking ruin”.

“Remember what I said, you two…” Shinabi said as he and his family crossed the road into Kazeatari proper. He kept his children close, and none turned an eye to their approach. All he needed to do was get Kaileena to the school, away from the crowd, and he would have some time to make his trade run. Hana would keep them safe and sound.

Looking to her now, hidden in the folds of her cloak, he again wondered exactly what he’d inadvertently chased off a cliff all those years ago. Kaileena had thinned and lengthened after her toddling years, becoming almost serpent-like, with narrow limbs and face. This should have been repellent, but in truth, her figure implied incredible fragility that many would consider a sort of alien beauty, combined with the pleasant light blue and tan coloring of her skin. When she was excited, or upset, the stalks on her head would raise, almost in challenge.

She laughed, played, and cried like any ordinary girl her age, but he silently feared for her future in a world of humans, even though she was hardly threatening in either appearance or in personality. But Kaileena needed an education, and a sense of her place in the world, and that was why she was here today.

Before he died, he would ensure she would be alright.

They went down a crowded dirt street, neatly lined on either side by stalls run by chonin; the merchant class, which distributed goods from all over Teikoku. Spices, exotic foods and teas, even a few bows were on display, but the lower classes were forbidden to carry true weapons, which suited Shinabi just fine.

“Can we see a florist, Father?” Kaileena nudged him, pointing to a stall selling rare plants and flowers.

“In the evening I will let you pick out whatever you like, my dear.” Shinabi chided, “But hush now and keep to yourself. We are nearly there”.

“But they might sell all the good flowers by then.” Kaileena protested, brushing his side with a huff, and the florist sensed she was being observed, as was a sort of preternatural ability unique to the sales profession.

“Sir? Do you wish to see some of my fine wares?!” the woman shouted, but Shinabi waved her off, “Later, I will take a look, but business presses”.

After they passed unmolested into the residential district of the village, Shinabi allowed his heart to slow its beating. Kaileena groaned discontentedly, and Gatsuyu seemed equally tense and confused by his reticence. “There now; here we are.” Shinabi said, noting the small house where he met Rhenmaru for the usual rounds, “I have a friend here that will meet me for some business, and you two can see the school they have in the village."

By the Hitorigami’s decree at least a minor education was required by law to all citizens throughout Teikoku, noble and commoner alike. The nobles generally went to a private tutor, but his children would be housed and taught publicly. That was for the best, because nobles always brought an entourage, and he could very easily see a confrontation from sell-swords and the like.

The public school was in its opening ceremonies, and only children and their immediate guardians would be present. Not the sorts that would harm his daughter.


“Now Gatsuyu, Hana will be with you both for a while, but I trust you to protect your sister. Can you do that for me?” Shinabi asked, clutching his boy’s shoulders.

“I will, father.” Gatsuyu replied with a determined smile, and he released his hold and playfully ground his palm into his son’s hair, “Good boy. Hana, I’ll be off”.

As Father left, Hana looked to her and Brother, her expression veiled, then led them to a large house at the end of the street. It had windows, a luxury for sure, but she couldn’t see inside. Inside, there was a small room with a door at the end, and Hana sighed, “The Waiting room. Good. Now then, I’ve already informed the schoolmistress of your arrival. Go in and meet the other children”.

Waving her goodbyes, Hana remained outside, and Kaileena followed Brother to the end of the hall beyond the door, finally able to take off the hood of her cloak. Someone must have heard them approach, because a woman opened the door at the end and walked up to them, garbed in a layered kimono that was much nicer than hers. She wasn’t sure, but Kaileena thought she was looking at her funny…

“Greetings. I am Umeka, mistress of the Kazeatari School. We’re not in session yet, but the children that will constitute this year’s class are currently in attendance.” She said, offering a slight bow, which she and Brother returned, remembering a lesson Father had taught beforehand about talking in public.

“Hello, I am Kaileena Kazeatari.” Kaileena replied, remembering the second name of everyone was the village that they either lived in or were close to. Brother offered his own greeting, and the woman was still looking at her funny; Kaileena almost thought she seemed scared… “Right then. You may enter the door behind me, and come fall, you will both be admitted and boarded as students”.

Brother went in first, and Kaileena tried not to shove him to make him go faster. Even though Father wouldn’t let her see the village, she was about to meet other kids than Brother! As she got past him, she looked around the room, which was mostly empty; there were a bunch of sitting cushions on the floor, one much bigger than the rest, and a shelf full of old books on the far wall.

There were a few children too, mostly boys, playing and talking, and they started to look her way, one or two at a time, until the room got very quiet. They were all looking at her

Kaileena tried to smile, but she was suddenly too nervous, it was like the words, or any words, were forgotten. “What is that?” one of them asked, pointing her way.

“I am Kaileena Kazeatari.” She replied, shaking away her feeling, and the room went quiet again, as if they hadn’t expected her to speak. “I am Gatsuyu Kazeatari.” Brother said, “And she is my sister”.

They shifted uneasily, and walked towards her, “Why does she look like that?” the one that had spoken first asked, starting to move his hand forward to touch her, and Brother pushed him away. Kaileena touched her head, and the fuzzy stalks felt different, like they’d spread out since she put the cloak on. So she did have feathers, and not hair.

“I am Chion Kazeatari.” the boy said, brushing a lock of hair under the knitted cap he was wearing, “My friends here are Hatsuto, Gin, and Nagomi.”

He motioned to the others; a smaller boy with a ragged vest and matted black hair, a short-haired boy who was the only one still sitting cross-legged on a cushion, and a girl with a small button nose that was staring just like Umeka had.

“So you two live away from here?” he asked, not offering a bow, the breach in manners implying authority.

“We live in a cabin to the north and west.” Kaileena replied meekly, still mussing her hair feathers, “This is our first time here."

“Well of course it is, since I haven’t heard of you. Anyway...just so we’re all clear, I am the boss, and the rest here all do what I say.” Chion said proudly, smiling and making it seem frightening somehow, “You got a problem with that?” to which Brother shook his head, “No. You can be boss all you want, just don’t mess with my sister”.

Chion laughed, “You two are going to be great here. Even you, Kaileena. Just don’t get any funny ideas. Or bite me. Those teeth look sharp”.

They did? Was that why everyone kept looking at her oddly?

After a while the others started to talk to them, and then they even invited her and Brother to play tag. She was tagged by Gin, and she giggled, chasing after Brother and cursing her choice of footwear. When she realized she wouldn’t catch him, Kaileena sat down and started to tear off her sandals, untying the lace that wrapped around her ankle. With them gone, she started getting close to tagging him. While the others ran and laughed, Kaileena leaped, and tagged Brother across the back before she hit the ground, still giggling.

Nagomi was smarter about keeping away, standing around Chion and using his shadow like a hiding spot. Brother growled, but turned and ran towards Chion, who darted away, sidestepping him, with Nagomi hidden behind him. Brother chased him some more, but then changed his focus to Gin as he neared, and managed to tag him.

“No fair!” Gin complained, looking at Brother while turning to chase her, “You waited until I wasn’t looking”.

Kaileena ran from Gin as fast as she could, her tail lashing to one side or another so she could turn faster, “Is there a better time?” she asked, laughing.

Mistress Umeka entered the room when Gin almost got her, and everyone stopped.

“Please gather, children. I wish to speak.” she said, and the others took to the sitting cushions, as upset as she was that the game ended so quickly. She and brother did the same. The seat was very cozy, and Kaileena distantly wished she had one at home.

“With all of you here I wished to give a lecture before you returned home. One that I feel is vital not only to your education but to your identity as citizens of Teikoku.”

There was a long pause as she collected herself, then, “We know not how long our people have lived in these lands. Perhaps we have since time’s beginning. We thank the world for its gifts to us; food, shelter, and sunlight. We thank those around us for their gifts to us; friendship, loyalty, honor, love, and, if necessary, sacrifice. We thank the Totoanatsukami, though we know not their gifts. But most of all, we thank the Hitorigami, for keeping us safe from the outlanders and from the cowardly enchanters...”

“…Our people have always been gifted, with both our strength and our unity. Teikoku, this land, is our home and shall always be so long as we have the aid of those close to us. However, two centuries ago, we learned of other nations far to the east, when the Pirate Lords came to our lands on ships of wood and iron, and sought to rule us. Enchanters; despicable, manipulative magicka wielders, likewise sought to rule us, having poisoned the line of sacred Hitorigami through trickery. The Pirate Lords, seeing our plight, chose to aid us instead, and struck down the enchanters, restoring the Hitorigami to his rightful station as our ruler and protector. A bargain was struck, and we have lived in prosperous peace; the pirates serve the Hitorigami, and give us many gifts of machines, and in return, they are granted stations of power and influence as well as lands to call their own. Such is our way, for we treat our friends kindly, and our enemies mercilessly. The foul enchanters, those who survived the Reclamation, serve the people now. For their trickery, this was their punishment. Remember children, that it is through those beside you that true power is gained, not by the strengths of one or of sorceries deemed blasphemous by the law. It is here, where you will learn not only the law, but how to live as a citizen of Teikoku under our Hitorigami”.

Umeka rose some time later, having spoken for hours of other things she did not understand, and no one said a word. Kaileena had never heard someone talk like that, and felt different having listened, in a way she didn’t comprehend.

“Your parents and guardians will be here shortly to pick you up. Until then ponder these words, because in time it will be your generation and not mine that decides the fate of our nation. It will fall upon you to be farmers, warriors, or craftsmen…Consider which role you will play."

As the mistress left the classroom to the entry hall that Hana should still be in, Kaileena did wonder what she would be; a farmer? A hunter? Possibly, or would she be something that Umeka hadn’t mentioned, since she was so different from everyone else?

Shrugging, Kaileena went with the others as they returned to their game of tag. Gin ran for her first, thinking to catch her off guard, but she wasn’t fooled, and ran faster, even circling around Nagomi, hoping he would chase her instead. While she was looking at Gin, Nagomi got in her way, and stopped her long enough for Gin to tag her. Kaileena huffed, but knew that Nagomi made a mistake getting so close to her! Before she could run away, Kaileena pounced, and tagged her right back for tricking her. “Too fast.”

Nagomi groaned under her, and they both laughed.

“Get off of her!” someone yelled from the door, and suddenly a big man was rushing at her, a wild, repulsed look on his face. Kaileena jumped, startled, and the man nearly threw her as he pushed her away, picking up Nagomi with a scowl. “You! Never touch her again! Do you hear me!” he screamed, motioning to hit her, and Kaileena backed up against the wall, her heart in her throat.

“Umeka!” he yelled, and the School Mistress bolted in, her eyes wide. “What is this…this thing doing with our children?” the man growled, and Brother got between him and her. “That thing is a child, and this is a school.” Umeka replied, “Please calm down, Sir Teru”.

“I am plenty calm!” he snapped, “I’d better not see it near my daughter again, or I swear I’m going to wring its filthy little neck”.

“You will not touch her!” Brother growled, huffing up his shoulders.

“You little…-”

“That is enough, Teru. Leave, or I will call the soldiers.” Umeka said, brandishing a thick arm-length stick.

“You go ahead. They’ll probably haul that thing away, and you too for keeping it here.” Teru growled, stomping out with a crying Nagomi over his shoulder.

Kaileena slid down to curl up, all the tension flowing out now that the man was gone. Brother fell down next to her, and none of the other kids said anything. Kaileena started crying, so much that her whole body was shaking.

She saw Umeka coming over, not looking like she was scared of her anymore, “That man will set the whole village into a ruckus…I think I can work around that, though.”

Umeka put a hand on her shoulder, “I think I can set separate days for you two when you come in the Fall, as well as separate lodgings. You won’t have to see Teru again."

“Or any of them again…” Brother said angrily, meaning the others, and Umeka nodded, just a little.

Hana came in the room, saw her crying, and ran over, “What happened?” she gasped, and all the people crowding around her was making her feel dizzy.

“Everything is alright; she just had a little scare.” Umeka replied, "You should take them home, now."

Hana nodded, and scooped her up in her arms, “Come on, Gatsuyu. It’s time to go”.

Hana righted the girl’s kimono, but didn’t make her don the cloak. There was little point to it now.

“Everything’s going to be alright. Look, we’re going to see Father.” She said gingerly, Kaileena not replying, not showing any sign of comprehending her words.

As she walked out of the school house, there were men and women of the village that must have heard all that shouting. Hana held Kaileena even closer, so she wouldn’t see their prying eyes, and the girl went limp as she cradled her. They wouldn’t bother her if she moved quickly.

She led Gatsuyu out of the village grounds, and onto the trail leading back home. After a few minutes, she saw Shinabi hauling his wagon, and hailed him. From the look on his face, he must have guessed what had happened, and Hana lightly rocked Kaileena to get her attention as he approached.

“Here. I got this for you today…” Shinabi said, offering a potted blue flower.

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