A group of men passed under him, robed in black and wearing those damning iron masks.
Maki resisted the impulse to draw his kusarigama and leap down onto them. A few seconds and he could dice them into cutlets. But his orders were clear; observe the cultists until the entire group was revealed.
Well over forty Karyudo Kisai agents were within range of whistle, poised to strike. When the cult was fully assembled they would purge them, cleanly and efficiently.
The foreign liaison among the Renmei Kaizoku, or Pirate Lords as they were also known, had commented on the striking similarity between the Renmei Keiji and another organization that'd plagued their own lands before they’d abandoned them. From what he understood, the cultists in either sect worshiped death, or at least the power to create death, and sought to bless themselves with immortality through the foul art of raising and controlling the dead.
As if enchanters weren’t bad enough...
Seven years he had tracked them, eliminating or capturing the strays and subjecting them to brutal interrogations that seemed to lead nowhere, but Maki had been cunning, and receded from the warpath as of late, making the enemy feel secure, safe, in the hopes that they would reveal themselves again.
And it seemed like the plan was working.
All he needed now, all he needed to give that final order to attack, was the leader…who would wear ornamented robes and a mask not quite like the others.
The winds carried the scent of smoke and something else that twisted his stomach, as Maki watched the cultists enter a closed off pagoda-like structure in their wilderness cell near Fusestu. Even from this distance, he was able to watch them through the spyglass, another lovely invention of the Pirate Lords.
He tensed, dropping his cloth-bound branches to the ground below, which had camouflaged him to appear as a part of the surrounding foliage. He then signaled the others with three swift blows of a whistle made to mimic native birds, and drew his twin kusarigama, the chains attached to his bracers, and dropped down as well. He made his approach, darting from shadow to shadow under the pale moonlight, murder on his mind.
“News from the south...” Tarkiri reported, shifting impatiently as Shirudo finished cleaning and sharpening the spike at the center of his new shield. While the bow had proven to be his favored style of weaponry, he was still trying to find the right fit for more close encounters.
“Send him in.” He replied grumpily, his temples still throbbing from the night before, when a cloaked figure entered the room. As it was, the messenger was actually female, “Foul news. The hierarchy of the Skraul have taken note. A Prime has been dispatched.”
“A Prime…” Shirudo breathed, as if saying the word again would ease the sting of it. His people were still identifying the Royal Line of the Skraul, but all who had been enslaved by the foul race knew of the Primes. The Primes were of the highest order of known Vampyres; generals and assassins, unparalleled practitioners of sorcery and possessed of preternatural martial prowess. Shirudo knew Tarkiri had been unfortunate enough to see one in action, and that the memory haunted him still.
“They are growing desperate, to send such monsters after us.” Shirudo mused, “Ryū will wish to know of this”.
“He still searches for some device he called a ′Way-Gate’. He cannot protect us from this.” Tarkiri replied, his hands shaking, his stubbed tail lashing the floor tensely.
“We don’t need protection.” Shirudo said, “Our chemist has reported in; it has been perfected”.
Tarkiri blanched, knowing exactly what he referred to; their little guarantee that the Skraul would be manageable by their living members, rather than only their undead one.
“Whatever the Primes are, they are singular beings, and no one person can dodge a hundred spears or a hundred arrows from every angle. Many of our brethren have joined our cause, training with our resident bladedancer. We have become strong. Strong enough to give the Skraul pause. They know now to fear us, and we shall prove them wise in their fear”.
Tarkiri seemed perplexed for a moment. “What are you implying exactly?” he finally inquired, and Shirudo smiled, an admittedly uncharacteristic gesture from him, “I’m saying this isn’t just a fight for their food any longer. The Skraul now fight for their lives. Seventy-two of their foul ilk we have put to stake and torch, and they are not by any means a numerous race. We are many, and we can wipe them out, and the Karu with them. Our people regain not only their fighting spirit, but their pride as well. We can finish this fight…we can win!” the Silkrit breathed, looking back to the messenger, “Order the outlying hunters to return. We will not merely await the Prime; we will take the fight to it”.
Tarkiri grinned, the shaking in his hands no longer noticeable. “What target did you have in mind?” he asked, to which Shirudo grinned wider, “Corpsespire”.
The silence stretched far longer this time…
“You want to take a necropolis, even the smallest of them?! Not even the hordes of the Karu could-”
“We are not them, Tarkiri. It is possible, and if we claim an entire city, think of the amount of people we would free”. “And if we fail to take the city, we will be annihilated. There will be no one left to carry on the fight, and all we have wrought will be for nothing!”
Shirudo knew it to be true, and nodded grimly, “It will solve many of our problems; the Prime will come if an entire necropolis is sacked. We can ensure we are ready, and even Ryū will abandon his chase to aid us; Corpsespire, then Dormortem, and then, Baleblood. When we sack their capital, we will scatter the vampyres”.
He grinned, rising to his feet, “You knew it was going to lead to this. We all did. And now is the time. We are many, with little resources but with a great many weapons. If we do nothing, or go onto the defensive, we will starve before cycle’s end. It must be now. If we take the city its stores will be ours, and we will have not a guerrilla force but an army. With a defensive fortification, strategically placed to cull the other cities. Let that be a reminder of the spirit of our people! Recall the hunters, and let it be done.”
Listening carefully to birdsong and other disturbances in the forest around her, Kaileena flicked her tail excitedly as she carefully made her approach from downwind.
While it was the day after her fourteenth name day, she’d offered to hunt for the family, knowing she was now the one best suited to the task.
Gatsuyu, while very strong, was not very stealthy, having taken up Father’s crops for the last two or three years. Kaileena smiled, thinking of how cross Father had been when Brother insisted on taking his share of the labor. He was getting older, and it was appropriate for the first son to assume his duties.
Those had been Brother’s exact words, actually.
She wondered distantly what her duty really was. Being…whatever she was, none of the villagers would take her as a wife, and even if one did she couldn’t provide an heir to carry on the family name.
Father had argued with her for years that she was a member of the family, and Kaileena knew it to be true on an emotional level…but she was not blood relation. She wasn’t even the same species. What was she to do?
Oh, she had done her fair share for the family, of course; learning how to hunt and farm, even going out of her way to research and purchase herbs for tonics and poultices to sell at the market, having bought a musty old tome with chemical recipes written in the Commoner’s Tongue with her allowance.
That’d been enjoyable; from an early age Kaileena had found herself fascinated with Alchemy, like cooking, but towards a more elusive purpose than taste. Come to think of it, she loved cooking too.
So, she’d provided for her family, had more than earned her place even had Father detested her.
She yearned for others of her kind, and to know where she came from. To know her people, whatever they were. Maybe even start her own family someday, as insane as it sounded presently to her confusing and sometimes even outright contradictory teenage inhibitions. But all that seemed impossible. In fact, it probably was.
Now in an unpleasant humor, her “hair” puffing with her agitation, Kaileena shook away her misgivings. Her feathers, having bloomed into a crest from a spot above and between her brow all the way to halfway down the back of her head, were originally pale white, but she’d also created sets of dyes, mostly for sale, setting aside a soft violet color for personal use. That, combined with a creamy white, made a contrasting gradient from the central stalk of the feathers that pleased her. A few other things had developed with her body that she hadn’t expected, as she had found several lizards in the past and carefully noted their common traits. For starters, she was…budding, like the other girls had, even though she thought she was a reptile. Gave off her own body heat, too.
Nothing for it, Kaileena had accepted all this, exploring her new traits with hesitant curiosity.
Her bow, well, her father’s bow, was hanging by her shoulder, and Kaileena hadn’t brought his spear, needing only her skill in archery. Even if she hadn’t been skilled enough, which she was, the poison, carefully made not to spoil meat, was quite capable of making a clean kill.
She didn’t like killing animals, but her family needed food on the table and that was her responsibility too.
She just wished the deer would understand that.
They were close; three stags, a doe, and a fawn. She could taste their spoor in the air. She’d probably single out a male unless one of the others was injured.
With summer fully under way, the flora was in full blossom, and Kaileena wondered distantly if the earthy aromatic she wore would mask her scent entirely.
As she neared the group, Kaileena scaled the nearest tree that would support her, but one far enough from the targets she could remain out of earshot; opting for about two stone-throws. She climbed up, using the branches for support, until she had an unobstructed view of the grazing animals, still oblivious to her presence.
It was too easy for her; she wasn’t strong like Brother, could barely move a plow, but she’d always been fast and lithe, and most importantly, quiet.
The deer were all healthy looking, grazing, and Kaileena settled on the smallest male, leaving the bigger ones alive to protect the group from predators. She drew an arrow, nocked, and took aim, her sights squarely focused on the stag, when it suddenly dropped, an arrow in its head.
She hadn’t fired yet…
Several more arrows flew, dropping the others, fawn included, before they could even bolt. Kaileena sat at her perch, lowering her bow, tail curling with anger. What monsters would kill a fawn?!
There were growling noises, and a high pitched, metallic sound she didn’t recognize. “Good job, boys!” a man called boisterously, entering her line of view with a tiny metal lump in one hand, and an oddly shaped bow that was horizontal, metal, and featured a curved handle. His skin was abnormally tanned, his eyelids were shaped differently, and his body in general was more tall and lean. Kaileena concluded he was a foreigner, one of the servants of the Pirate Lords, probably. She’d only had a few experiences with them, usually on her infrequent trips to the town of Kazeatari, but those meetings had never been pleasant.
This man, leading five or so similar looking brutes, immediately struck her as unsettling. Her first impression of his hooked nose, red from the cold, maybe, crooked teeth, and hungry eyes made her think of a vulture, its beak bloodied with a fresh kill.
She stayed very still, and remained quiet, too high up in the tree to easily remain hidden from a human, which hunted with its sense of sight rather than smell. And her natural colors were hardly camouflage...
Many four legged, furred animals followed the humans; dogs? Not any breed she’d seen before; their wrinkly, drooping faces seemed out of place on such thin, lean bodies with so little fur. “Clean up those kills!” he ordered, and his men began processing the deer.
The dogs started snarling in her direction as the wind shifted, their jowls drooling. Kaileena couldn’t bear to watch the fawn being gutted, so she closed her eyes.
“Hey, Gruuth, you see that up there?” a dull, flat, baritone voice echoed up from the forest floor, and Kaileena silently cursed, opening them. “Why yes. Yes I do. Good catch, Boren. I would've missed it.” Gruuth chuckled, “What do you suppose that is?”
She saw the men looking up at her, some curious, some appalled.
“I know that creature. That is the Kazeatari Serpent, the thing they like to call the daughter of Shinabi Kazeatari.” Boren noted, reloading his strange iron bow. “Oh, is that so? I think you’re right. Whatever shall we do with her?” Gruuth asked, smiling a mouthful of crooked, rotten teeth, “I think she was going to steal our kills”.
Kaileena scowled, considering her options of escape. In the meantime, she decided to stall them, because they knew of her father, and most likely, how to find their home.
“You cannot call wild game yours until you’ve shot it.” She shouted, seeing a possible path of escape.
“Maybe you don’t know the law too well, farmer-daughter; your Hitorigami says we can claim any game we want, and trying to steal from us is a very serious crime.” Gruuth corrected, “Maybe if you come down, we can just confiscate you and sell you to some curious noble as a pet”.
This wasn’t going to work. Kaileena remained silent, tensing to leap.
“No? Then your punishment is ours to decide…Fire!” Gruuth snapped, and Kaileena was already on the ground by the time the tree was peppered with arrows. She dashed away, leaping over a fallen log, running as fast as she could as the dogs gave chase. The animals were called back after a few panicked seconds of pursuit, probably because their masters were confident that they could find her. Correctly so. Father would not be pleased…
The Silkrit were on the move, much as he’d expected. Kyokan figured he should warn Corpsespire of the imminent invasion…but there was nothing wrong with a little thinning of the herd. In Skraul society only the strongest survived; allegiances were made for mutual utility, and Kyokan saw no usefulness out of the necropolis, at least none to him personally.
The Royal Line would surely be displeased, but he’d bring them the ashes of the half-breed and the matter would be quickly forgotten. A Silkrit, granted the dark blessing…it was appalling in his eyes. The Silkrit were weak, no more than cattle, and one that imitated their powers was an affront. An insult.
No; let them attack, and even if they succeeded in taking the necropolis it would surely draw Ryū from hiding. The Te Fukushu would collapse upon his death, and the resulting slaughter would be exhilarating.
Something woke her as she slept, curled in a ball atop a thin cushion at her side of their small room. Kaileena lay there, confused, but then the noise repeated.
Knocking, at their door...
Gatsuyu rose quickly, “Who would come at this hour? Do you think they…-” they both acted quickly, Kaileena throwing a robe over her thin shift, stringing Father’s bow, and Gatsuyu took one of his hammers. They went into the main room, and Father was already waiting there, a woodsman’s axe in hand. He knew as well who might have come, having considered seeking shelter in Kazeatari, but night had come quickly and they hadn’t had the chance to leave.
“I’ll open the door. Stay in your rooms.” Father whispered, waving his hand before either of them could protest, “Now, damn you”.
Shaking with fear, Kaileena hissed as she was shoved back into their room by Gatsuyu, who was gripping his hammer so hard his knuckles were white. She could hear the door opening, but the men entering were not the same as the men in the forest; they smelled clean, for one.
“By the order of Lord Minamoto and the Hitorigami, I command everyone of this household to present themselves!” a man shouted, and Kaileena shook her head in confusion. Why would…-
“Do you have any official decree that proves you are what you say you are?” Father asked, tense.
“I think I can shed some light on that.” a second man said, “Look upon me and know that I am Lord Minamoto, ruler of this district of Teikoku”.
There was a long pause, or at least she felt there was, then, “Gatsuyu, Kaileena. Come out, please…” Father said despondently.
“Let’s do what they say; those are the Hitorigami’s men, and they won’t try to hurt us.” Gatsuyu said hesitantly, putting his hand on the door. He walked out first, and it took all of her strength to follow him. This was still Father’s home. No one had a right to harm any of them here.
The man who was Lord presented his symbol of office; a wooden disk plated with bronze depicting some kind of chrysanthemum. He was well into his dotage; his dark hair streaked with grey, tied into a topknot, and the dark circles under his eyes bore heavy wrinkles. Garbed in layered robes of violet and blue linen and a richly decorated breastplate, a dai-katana at his waist, the man allowed no doubt to his status, seal or no. Answering only to the Hitorigami himself, the Four Lords of Teikoku were his instruments, his outlet that actively governed the people of the land.
Why would one come all the way out here?
“It was rude of me to invade your home at this hour. For that, I apologize.” Lord Minamoto said honestly, his eyes falling on her, "I will get straight to the point."
He walked over to her, towering over her, and Gatsuyu tried to get in between them. Lord Minamoto waved his hand, and an invisible force gently knocked Brother back a pace; not enough to take him off his feet, but just enough to wind him.
“You are…an enchanter?!” Kaileena gasped, horrified, backing towards her room. Lord Minamoto put a hand on her shoulder, pinning her in place, "No. But enchantments are wrought all throughout my garb, including my blade. Simple things like telekinesis are not beyond my ability."
Those aged, intelligent brown eyes of his were hypnotizing, filled with authority, somehow making her want to do what he said. “What do you want with me?!” Kaileena asked, her entire body shaking with the sheer presence he commanded as much as the fear of his answer.
"My men received word of your attempted theft of the pirate’s game. Whether or not you fired at them as they claimed, it is a very serious offense."
“I fired no arrow, and I didn’t fire upon the deer either. They killed them first. I-”
“That doesn’t matter.” Lord Minamoto interrupted, "You are in very serious trouble."
Father bolted over, “Please, my lord, she meant no harm!” he said desperately, but he was calmly held in place by the lord’s subordinates, who seemed no more outwardly hostile than Minamoto himself.
“I have reviewed what is known about you, as I was on vacation from my manse in Fusestu, and am prepared to offer my personal judgment on the matter, and not the judgment that they demanded. Normally attempted attack or theft upon foreigners under the protection of the Hitorigami is punishable by death, but there are...certain bylaws that can be exploited in regards to female offenders.”
Lord Minamoto placed a hand on her other shoulder, and looked right into her eyes. There was no hate there, or fear, and she thought it was oddly comforting…in spite of the look on his face that suggested he was about to tell her something horrible, "There is a facility for female criminals in Fusestu, a prison of sorts, though it has no dungeons to speak of. It offers many comforts."
Kaileena finally started to cry, “B-but…I want to stay here…can we not just-”
“I decided to enact these bylaws, to spare your life. There was great here-say on the matter of you, being...something other than human, but I see no evil in your eyes. I believe you didn’t fire upon them. You do not deserve death, but I cannot defy the Hitorigami’s law and just release you.” Lord Minamoto interrupted, his expression sympathetic, “I expect you to be ready within the hour”.
Father and Brother came to her while the lord and his men waited outside, and once she started crying she couldn’t stop.
“Child…I’m so sorry…” Father said, “If I had just hunted myself, this-”
“No! Father, this is their fault, those damned outsiders. Sister, I will get you out of this, I swear it!” Brother snapped, holding her so tightly it hurt.
“I will…get your things.” Father said, defeated. She had never heard him speak that way.
After some time the door opened, and Lord Minamoto saw the family embrace a final time before they led the girl outside. He held no ill will towards her, but still he would charge her. Making an exception was akin to favoritism, and such a thing was not allowed, not in his district.
Minamoto studied the handle of his dai-katana. For decades, with this blade by his side, he had fought for his Hitorigami against foreign incursions and local bandit clans. He’d seen much in his time; so much death, so much chaos. He’d learned that when the law was circumvented for power or personal gain, even with selfless motivations, all suffered as a result. It was enough he’d prevented her death, for life was a precious thing as well, also not to be taken for personal gain or satisfaction.
The girl walked up to him feebly, her eyes downcast, carrying a small patchwork sack over her shoulder, a potted flower cupped in her hands, and he nodded, leading her towards the carriage that he commonly traveled with. His servants opened the door, and he went in first, as was his right, and the girl was lifted up to join him in its cushioned seats. The servants drew the cart with the aid of a team of mules, and his bodyguards walked alongside, leaving him alone with the girl.
“What will happen to me?” She asked meekly, her eyes on the floor. Minamoto frowned, “It is inappropriate to speak to a lord unless spoken to… To a servant, it is inappropriate to speak to anyone above your rank unless spoken to. This will be one of the lessons you will learn soon; etiquette. Nevertheless, I will answer you. The town of Fusestu is my capital, and my home is nearby in a private villa. A small but well garrisoned and fortified city, it is complete with a noble district that sports lodgings for the upper classes, as well as many means of entertainment. Kabuki, festhalls, minstrels, exotic traders…and a brothel. It is in the brothel where you will work, as do many females charged criminally or possessed of an outstanding public debt”.
She must have been familiar with the word, for she cringed at its mentioning.
“Why?” she asked, holding tightly to her belongings.
“Those men wanted your head, or for you to serve them as a thrall, but they compromised with me in the form of a demeaning task in Fusestu; Gaisho. You are not human, but you have the curves of a proper woman. Your skin is soft, and you are colorful. There are some who will desire that, and at least in that profession much will be offered to you; fine clothing, comfortable lodging, respectable food. You will be safe in Fusestu, and I’ll keep an eye on your family, that the foreigners not harass them. Remember, Kaileena; wherever you live, you can come to love it. You can be happy there, if you try”.
She looked downward, still not wanting to make eye contact.
“How long?” she asked, and again Lord Minamoto was irked by her impertinence, but ignored it. He owed her that much.
“It is a life sentence.” He replied. She was silent, for a time, then, “Will there be flowers?”
“I...suppose.” he replied, looking out of the curtains to the passing countryside, uncomfortable with this as much as she was. He’d never entered a brothel; he was loyal to his wives, though he’d sent subordinates to one or another when reports of abuse or illicit goods being distributed surfaced. There was rarely outright abuse...but the tasks demanded of its workers...
He hoped he was mistaken; that the customers of such an establishment wouldn’t desire her. If that were the case, she would be no more than a common servant. But he didn’t hold to hope, for nobles could be particularly lustful, and more capable of looking past the girl’s differences in a way she would not want them to.
The subject was responding to the ritual better than he’d expected. Yokai drove a flat blade into the femur, cracking it open, and the restrained victim wailed, thrashing against his restraints. First, only marrow emerged from the bone, but thanks to carefully placed enchantments, the fluid began to glow a faint red, indicating success. The Vitrium filtered out of the marrow, and flowed through the grooves of the wooden slab, leading into a draining cup which would later be sealed, containing the life energy within.
Yokai smiled, feeling the currents of energy being extracted from the man’s body.
“You wonder now, through the wound shock, perhaps, why fate has frowned upon you so. Allow me to offer you clarity, in you last conscious moments.” He said with a grim smile, his finger resting on the victim’s chin and pushing up, forcing their eyes to meet, "All of this has transpired because you are even more a monster than I. You are less than wretched…you are scum."
The victim was barely conscious. It didn’t seem that he comprehended or even heard his words, but Yokai smiled wider all the same, twisting the blade deeper into the wound, drawing fresh marrow, “And how can I feel remorse for ridding the world of you? ”
With all four limbs broken in key areas, the subject quickly succumbed to wound-shock. The flow of Vitrium abated with the numbing of the pain he was receiving. Frowning, Yokai reached for his maul and delivered a final blow to the temple.
My goal comes ever closer to completion, Yokai thought gleefully as he sealed the bottle of Vitrium and tucked it away with all the others. Previously unknown avenues were emerging in his quest for power, having begun to inject Vitrium intravenously at Tengu’s instruction. He was no longer charging enchanted items, but casting spells independent of them!
The Karyudo Kisai were trained to defeat enchantments, but were not prepared for a Magister; not prepared for someone who could channel magicka at will. None born of Teikoku were.
Soon, he would be able to hunt them in turn. For the moment, he would settle on foreigners and soldiers. Common rabble that could be snatched up without much trouble. There were always more to satisfy his growing demands, and he still needed considerably more if he was to summon Tengu and begin his conquest of Teikoku...