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

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Chapter 6

“That was just what I needed!” The client exclaimed, massaging her buttocks, "But I want to pay for an extension."

“You’ll have to sort that out with the host, sir.” Kaileena replied dryly, already trying to squirm out of bed to put her clothes back on.

It’d been almost two years since her father’s death, but the pain hadn’t diminished much, merely hardening from despair to bitterness.

Almost sixteen years old, Kaileena felt as though she’d already passed into her middling years. Time had lost all meaning, measured only by the scores of men and women that came to see her. The world seemed a small and unwelcoming place; these four walls, this room, and the rooms beyond it. Years without seeing the sun or the sky had diminished her memory of them, of the world outside.

She sometimes wondered if she wanted to see it at all anymore.

She started to tie together her obi, the corset-wrap holding the kimono together, when the customer grabbed her hands.

“I have something to put up for collateral.” he insisted, taking something out of the robes he’d left bundled on the floor. He drew out the item, vaguely round and wrapped in cloth. She tried to pry her arm loose, nervous, but relaxed as she saw the item to be a rather peculiar looking teapot-shaped lamp, cast in weathered porcelain and topped with a beaten metal stopper that was colored with bright paint. An interesting piece, but not really all that valuable.

“I know what you’re thinking, miss, but trust me; this item is a real bauble.” The client said excitedly, "Look."

He slammed it into the wall, and Kaileena recoiled, expecting a magnificent crash, but it was still intact, not even cracked.

"I got frustrated enough to take a hammer to that thing. It looks like porcelain but it might as well be tempered steel. It’s indestructible, magickal probably. You want it? I’m sure your boss will take that and half the rate."

Half rate? That was less than seventy coins.

“I don’t know...” Kaileena said idly, but she was intrigued nonetheless. School had taught her that magicka and those who used it were dangerous renegades, but the lawful, non-magickal society hadn’t exactly been kind to her. Kaileena found herself curious of enchanted items, and actually owning one seemed…appropriate, "Oh, Alright."

The client smiled, pulling away her kimono, and Kaileena fell onto the bed, laying on her side, her tail lifting up in a lazy yet inviting manner. He pushed her on her belly, gripped her thighs, squeezing them, before forcing his way into her for the second time of the night.

Kaileena felt flushed, though the discomfort had gone away years ago, sighing at the pleasant rush of heat all throughout her body as it pressed against his. The thrusts became more erratic as he grew more and more excited, and suddenly he pulled himself out of her.

Anticipating what he wanted by reading his body language, Kaileena rolled onto her back, and the client sat over her, favoring her mouth.

She was careful not to bite down, allowing him to pass as deep as he wished for the desired friction, and she closed her eyes contentedly, enjoying the attention. The client was breathing heavily, his thrusts erratic, until he came out completely as he reached his peak. Kaileena gripped him with her hand, stimulating as seed spewed across her lips and into her mouth.

Swallowing, licking her lips, Kaileena watched the client collect himself. He breathed deeply, grinning, “I’ll also be sure to tell my friends in Hitorigami City about you; consider it my way of thanks”.

“You live in Hitorigami City?” She asked, breaking the rules by talking to the client post-coitus, and he looked back at her, "Oh yes. Not the best part of it, but the capital is still nice enough even in the humbler districts. I’ll give my host the agreed rate, and for how good you work, I imagine he’ll let you keep the lamp."

Kaileena got up for a drink of water as he left, both because she was thirsty and because she wanted to wash out the salty taste.

When the next one noticed she hadn’t cleaned up, they let her know!

He might be right about his last comment, though; even though she’d tried to run away, destroying an expensive iron lock in the process, the master considered her one of his star attractions, as much due to as in spite of her being something other than human.

She picked up the lamp, and uncorked the stopper, gasping at what she found. The exposed side might have been bright but cheap-looking paint, but the exposed bottom of the stopper revealed it to be gold! How had he not noticed? A chunk of gold that size would easily have paid for the other half of the rate...

There was also an engraving, composed of symbols that she didn’t recognize and doubted were even in her language at all, Common or Noble variety. Looking deeply into the symbols, they appeared to almost glow with the blue paint imbued into them, their hues ranging from fair sky to dark sapphire.

Something…something about them spoke to her…and suddenly she was able to read them aloud.

“Threefold wishes promised. Threefold wishes asked. Threefold wishes owed.” she read, and the blue of the paint seemed somehow deeper. The gold seemed to glow of its own luster, as if it were molten hot. There was a commotion outside, and Kaileena jumped when someone shoved the door open.

What is the meaning of this?” the Master growled, holding a ripped cloth sack in his hand, “You give it away for some stupid lamp?!”

Kaileena didn’t mince words, recapping the lamp with her hands behind her back. He was not going to get this.

“I agreed for half rate and a gift. I figured that five clients in a night deserved a reward. I didn’t know you would dislike it that much…” she said innocently, and the master towered over her menacingly.

“Half rate, on the most expensive girl?! No, whore, I think I would not agree to that. Let me see this gift he gave you!” he yelled, tearing the lamp from her hands.

Please don’t let him uncap it

And for whatever reason, the cap wouldn’t come off, no matter how hard he forced it, and the Master scowled, “Some useless trinket. You idiot! I had to let that thieving charlatan out of my brothel because you decided to make a verbal agreement. If I renege and force him to pay in full, it would shame this house! Eighty coins lost, all thanks to some stupid mutant bitch raised by a criminal scumbag!”

She had been pushed around by this man long enough. To insult her was tolerable, but insulting the man who had raised her, had cared for her, had loved her as his own child…and died for her…that was too much.

“Do not ever speak ill of my father again, or the next time I decide to brew up concentrated acid, I won’t use it on the door.” Kaileena hissed, her whole body trembling, and the master seemed generally stunned for the first time since she’d come to the brothel. That didn’t last long.

“You little…Bitch!” he yelled, striking her squarely in the side of the head, his knuckles bleeding from the impact with her horn nubs. She cried out, wavered on her feet, dazed, and the Master gripped her kimono savagely, throwing her against the bed. He struck her again, this time near the nose, and her vision swirled as she swooned with pain and dizziness.

He might have hit her a third time, but things went dark for a second or two, and as her eyes opened, there were two girls and the chef, struggling with him, his features twisted in fury, “Fine then! Take your useless prize. I hope it was worth it! And I’d better see you in shape for tomorrow’s show, because if you botch it I will take that smarmy tongue of yours!”

He removed himself from her room, the chef by his side. “Here…” Umi said, handing her the teapot-lamp, “I’ll bring some water and cloth”. Kaileena accepted the gift with a grateful nod, her eyes still watering from the blow to her nose, and she took the cloth sack that might have once been the client’s purse from the sheet of her bed, and used it to obstruct the bleeding so it didn’t stain her clothing.

As good as it felt to tell the master off, Kaileena wasn’t content. Not with the moment, and not with her life as a whole.

Something about the magickal lamp had changed that in an instant; it had reminded her of something very important. There was a whole world beyond that which she knew here, and the lamp was just a small part of it.

She had to get out of this place, this prison, and experience it.

“You shouldn’t have done that.” Wataru said, eyeing his employer coolly.

Slapping a willful gaisho wasn’t overly frowned upon, but what he’d done was just unseemly. Clients noticed the nastier sorts of bruises.

“I had to.” he replied, "When they get mouthy like that you have to show them very quickly where they stand, or they’ll get ideas. I thought she would have understood when they brought her back the first time but I guess I was wrong. It’s simple; I maintain a respectful tone, they do the same, the money keeps flowing, and everyone stays nice and happy."

Wataru frowned, but was unable to argue. He was in the master’s employ, and could be fired at any time to be replaced by someone less amenable to kindness to the poor women. He would sneak in some extra desert for Kaileena, perhaps, or a light drink for her head. Time would heal her wounds.

“You make this too easy.” Kyokan said amusedly, observing the Silkrit through his cloak of shadows, invisible and undetectable by all but the most powerful of sorcery.

But he didn’t attack. Not yet. Ryū had served his purpose admirably, killing Borgu for him. The Royal Line might have frowned upon Skraul slaying Skraul at that critical hour, but they wouldn’t have batted an eyelash in Kyokan allowing him to die.

Borgu had been tasked to seize the power of the Eternal Return and obtain temporary godhood, in order to carry on the Skraul campaign, but if Borgu were dead, why should Kyokan not take it for himself? Would he not be the more ideal vessel anyway?

And Ryū no doubt searched for the same thing at the behest of that fool, Surthath, so why not let him find it?

Smiling, Kyokan left the half-breed to his search. It was time to feed

He’d sampled the varied creatures of this world, via the unfortunate few captured and brought back to his home world as thralls, and he’d found El’Dari especially succulent. Sadly, there were few elves in the region, being at the western end of the continent of Aurora. He’d just have to make due with humans, not unlike Silkrit in temperament and culture. Choice prey.

Able to levitate with prodigious speed in his invisibility, he quickly located a small cottage at the forest’s edge, with four humans inside, their body heat visible to his heightened senses.

Kyokan licked his lips, savoring the meal to come, and Dokuja shimmered pale green, as excited as he was. Bound to his very being, his blade, as were all other Blood-Forged Blades, were living things in their own right, and it shared his gluttony.

Kyokan willed himself onto the ground, dispelled the aura of invisibility, and drove Dokuja into the door, splitting it open. The humans awoke, confused, but they were already dead, if ever they’d truly been alive. With cattle it was hard to say.

The elder male stormed out first, a smithing hammer in hand, and Kyokan dealt him a glancing blow to the kneecap and pushed him aside. The farmer slumped to the ground, the blade’s toxin inducing paralysis and excruciating pain, and Kyokan found his screams of agony pleasing as he cut down another, younger, male, splitting his head down the middle.

He drove his fangs into the newly made crevice at the base of the human’s neck, and drank greedily, his heart fluttering in paroxysms of pleasure. Such ripe fear…and pain… Ecstasy!

He threw the boy overhead, and the corpse tumbled out of an open window, out of which others had fled; a female and a small child. He saw them clearly, about a bowshot away.

Dokuja invoked its power, pointing towards the fleeing humans. The sky filled with a black thunderhead, eating away what little starlight there was, and the humans were set upon by a mass of conjured bats. He waited a ten-count, then dismissed them, cutting off the flow of magicka.

As they dissipated, Kyokan approached to find their bodies mangled to the point they couldn’t be recognized by species.

Kyokan turned back into the house, to find the old male, still held in Dokuja’s unbreakable paralysis. He showed the human what he’d done, arching its head towards its slain mate and offspring, and the pain etched upon its face was simply to die for!

He couldn’t contain the rush that the smell of blood and that look had given him, and he pounced, ripping the human’s throat cleanly out of his neck. He drove in deeply with his fangs, sensing all the emotions fueling the blood and turning it into Vitrium.

His blade absorbed some of his meal, and Dokuja flared with viridian light, its joy mirroring his own.

Killing was beautiful. Transcendent. Divine. There was no greater pleasure, save what he now quested for.

It was going to be very interesting becoming a god...

“And none of them made it back?” Shirudo asked, eyeing the scout grimly. She nodded, and he could only assume the last raiding group he’d dispatched had been killed.

He’d seen and heard the edict given from the Royal Line after the sacking of Corpsespire. The message had been quite clear; all Te Fukushu were to be killed on sight. No captures, no interrogations, not even sacrifices. The Skraul wanted to wipe them out, utterly and completely.

That put both sides on equal terms.

Ryū was gone, hopefully one step closer to finding whatever the hells he sought and not dead. It fell to Shirudo to lead the campaign in his absence, and through his leadership they’d sacked several outposts, increasing their numbers with the freed slaves that were even then being trained to fight.

The former residents of Corpsespire were already trained and being assigned their first missions. Their force of a few hundred had grown to two thousand in one night with Corpsespire’s fall. The necropolis itself had been fully re-purposed to serve as a Silkrit city, their first capital in...forever, maybe.

“Order three teams to their last known location. I’ll be leading them personally.” Shirudo said, unfurling a parchment recovered from the Skraul library. The hunter that found the cursed document had said it concerned Way-Gates.

“May I?” Aika asked, and Shirudo was genuinely offended, "We are all equals here. Please, speak your mind."

She paused for a time, then, "Is it not inappropriate that you take the field? With Ryū gone, you’re the only real strategist among us. And you’re a hero, well renowned, and the Skraul would seek you out in order to cripple us."

Shirudo smiled, chastened, "I see the wisdom of your words. It just feels cowardly sending others into danger while I remain in a fortified position."

"I know, but you’ll be sorely needed. We need a leader, and that is you, or Ryū. We don’t have the luxury of personal needs and inhibitions."

“Thank you, Aika. I have an idea of a suitable candidate to lead the raid instead; set Koukatsuna to it.” Shirudo conceded, "That is, if he’s sober enough."

Aika bowed, and rushed to deliver the message, and Shirudo was left to review the scroll.

Looking through the scribbled text, he was thankful that one of his roles had been as a novice scribe during his enslavement, as the Skraul were a quite neglectful race as far as a formal education was concerned.

According to the written material, a Way-Gate, or portal, was possible to create under very specific conditions; Vitrium, or life energy, had to be consumed, done quite simply by slowly burning someone alive, which would create an intense surge of energy distortion. In order to make the process possible, two Way-Gates needed to be constructed simultaneously, at both the start and end points to allow a bridge between them, and the portal would only be possible while both points were active, a span of no more than a thirty-count.

After the energy was exhausted, a new Way-Gate would need to be constructed for future travel, but in that brief window of opportunity it was possible to move from one end of the Veil to another in a single step!

The scroll concerned not only the creation of the Way-Gate process, but a detailed constellation noting possible worlds in which a portal could be constructed, as only worlds of similar atmospheric conditions and bacteria could facilitate travel.

Atmosphere? Bacteria? His education had obviously only been devoted to basic translation and little else.

Running down the list, Shirudo said the names aloud; “Bora, Tanicee, Xzal’shirlkk, Omron the Second, Carthspire, The Hunting Grounds, Aurora….Moonshadow?”

There were several principalities of the fabled Totoanatsukami mentioned further in, but this one had special significance, for it was the home of Surthath, where many of Shirudo’s primordial brethren had chosen to flee to. If Shirudo were able to successfully create a Way-Gate off of powerful Skraul…no.

Even if he were willing to engage in such debauchery, a second gate would have to be created in Moonshadow. He rolled up the parchment, troubled, and decided to store it away for future reference. He wondered which world Ryū had gone to, and if it might be better served as his people’s home instead.

What drives your heart?” someone asked her, his voice inhumanly deep, and Kaileena looked through the darkness around her, seeking the source.

“Is this a dream?” she asked timidly, seemingly alone in an empty void of space that seemed to span forever.

“No. This is a place inside of your mind, but it is no dream.” he replied, “It is merely the confusion within you. Ponder, and this space shall fill with your answer. I ask again; what do you desire, above all else in this world. What drives your heart?”

Kaileena was unsure of how to answer. She wanted her father back, she wanted her, Father, and Brother, to live in peace, away from cruel men, but that could never happen. Not now

She thought of wherever her species might have been born of, and thought of finding them and living far away from the Pirate Lords or the Hitorigami; that was a desire, but it was not the desire of her heart.

No; her truest desire was far more simple.

“I desire…” she started, and the dark void filled with a tremulous burst of light and energy, and reality itself shifted. There was a sun, and a sky, over a field of lush greenery and wildflowers of all the colors she could think of. In all directions the horizon offered an endless expanse of rolling hills and flat meadows, leading into even greater, unknown, wonders.

“I desire freedom.” Kaileena decided, "I want to see this world, and know of it, and make a life of my own choosing."

She wanted to live her own life, not the life others had forced upon her. She wanted to exist as she decided was best. She wanted to grow, and learn, and become strong, because this world would allow nothing less if she was to accomplish any of these things.

“A pure intent, guided by a pure soul.” he observed, and something…took shape before her.

It blurred about its edges, and was difficult to see. Impossible to focus on. What she could tell was that it was massive, towering over even the largest of men, with great unfolded membranous wings.

Blue symbols, identical to the ones in the lamp, glowed about and within it, with a somehow calming radiance akin to flowing water, all across a glassy, opaque surface of rippling shadow the color of darkest oil, and looking past it, within it, Kaileena saw twinkling crystals and shimmering constellations swimming in the light.

It was…beautiful; terrifying and uncanny and beautiful.

“What are you?” she gasped, unable to process what she was seeing.

“I am the last remnant of something that was lost. This is irrelevant, as I have accepted you, and agree to serve you in order for you to attain your desire. Awaken.”

Kaileena practically leaped off of her bed, finding herself in the brothel again.

A dream. Only a dream.

“What…?” her thought stopped dead as her eyes fell upon the creature on the nightstand, a towering humanoid, heavily muscled, his oil black skin naturally armor plated in areas, like scales but thicker, larger, and more intentionally placed. His hands, clawed things, were weighted with bracers of the same material, with intricate engravings and embedded golden filigree. His head, roughly shaped like hers but with a thicker chin, heavier brow, and a crown-like helm of natural plates, bore bright blue eyes, speckled with flecks of gold. His irises were narrow, reptilian. He was also possessed of long, long pointed ears, like blades of grass, a wild mane of hair reaching down his shoulders and almost to his waist.

He wore his veined, velvety wings draped about him like a cloak, their barbed talons intersecting and clamped shut, but beneath it he was shirtless.

Though he was solid, he loomed over the burner lamp, his feet somehow behind the stand.

No…even in her terrified state, she saw that his body in fact dissolved into a wisp of smoke at the waist level, which led into the lamp like an umbilical cord. He came out of the lamp?!

“Somebody, h-”

“Hush, little one.” he said, “You remember my words; I am sworn to aid you. You desire to be free, and I shall do all within my power to make that reality.” he said, and her world seemed to shift on its axis.

Free? She could be free?

“What are you?” she asked, feeling a sense of déjà vu, and the creature tilted his head in curiosity, "You are persistent. Very well. I was once a Kamiyonanayo, a servant to the Totoanatsukami, Surthath. Now, I am your familiar and guardian."

“A familiar?” Kaileena asked, and the Kamiyonanayo smiled, "I was once a physical being, but that being has been lost. I am a fragment, a stray wisp of consciousness animated by your desire. The lamp which was given to you, the lamp which once served as a means to summon a specific Kamiyonanayo, now serves as a vessel to hold me."

“And you will help me be free, in return for what?” Kaileena asked, "You must have some reason."

The Kamiyonanayo frowned, "Little one, I am not a true being anymore. I am not alive, at least not in your sense of the word. Your will, your need, has made me real again, recalling me from nothingness. It is you in essence that allows me to exist. Your need must have been truly great, if it was powerful enough to wake me."

Kaileena nodded uncertainly, wanting to touch the lamp but uncertain if it would be presumptuous, “Do I ask a wish, like I would if you were still whole?”

“No. I do not have the strength to grant a wish.” The Kamiyonanayo replied sadly, his frown widening, “From the moment of my “revival”, the boundaries of this most unusual pact were made clear to me. Sadly, I cannot easily act outside of the lamp. But I retain much of the knowledge of the being I diverged from, and can pass that knowledge to you. Should you ask for treasure, I would be able to impress upon you the exact location and nature of that treasure, if indeed I know of it. Should you ask for fighting skills or magickal knowledge, I would be able to teach you. I will also see through your eyes, and advise you as best I can, even while fully inside the lamp. And finally, in extreme circumstances, I can fight beside you directly with tooth, claw, and magicka. Merely cry out my name, and I will emerge from the lamp and temporarily bind myself with you. This is a function that I can only do in rare occasions, as it would tax me greatly, and afterward, I would require a great period of rest”.

“You spoke of magicka?” Kaileena asked, no longer afraid of the lies of the Hitorigami. Such wonderful things as this couldn’t be evil.

"I sense something within you…that I do not comprehend. In spite of this, I detect little magickal potency in your body, but this doesn’t prevent you from understanding magicka’s subtleties. I can train you as an enchanter might; how you use that knowledge is something that I leave to you."

Kaileena nodded, despairing that she hadn’t found the lamp before…before…

She pushed away the thought and the crippling grief that accompanied it, and looked back into her familiar’s sparkling blue eyes, "Then teach me to be an enchanter. I wish to learn."

“Tomorrow night, little one.” he said, and she deflated, "I need to compose your lessons, and that will take time and consideration, but by the end of the night after, if it is in my power, you will be free of this place. Now rest, little one. I will keep the nightmares at bay."

Maki watched as Yokai retreated into the tower from one of his nightly excursions, and signaled the Karyudo Kisai novices to advance.

Not surprisingly, there was a large segment of the rabble that wanted to be accepted into their order, and it was customary to have “tryouts”. Maki had absconded with the lot of them and decided to finish what Itaku and the Colossus could not.

There were well over seventy men behind him, none of them particularly battle-hardened; garden variety mercenaries, really, but he only needed one of them to get lucky.

He drew his kusarigama, and the others poured across the divide, brandishing all manner of improvised weaponry. The grounds around the tower reacted to the onrushing horde, just as he expected, and Maki darted in behind them, hoping to capitalize on the confusion. Men started dying.

Maki grabbed one of the freeloading wannabes, and pushed him through a field of fire like a shield. The man was powerfully built, but Maki was a Karyudo Kisai agent, and cracked the butt of one of his weapons against the fool’s skull. As the defensive wards engulfed them both, some of the heat was absorbed by the man’s body, and the rest was absorbed by the shard of iron in his femur.

He closed the breach, along with two or three others. The rest, well...

“Congratulations, men. You’ve passed the first part of your examination! Now, let us finish the second.”

The tower was stone, but quarried strangely, the almost cyclopean geometry suggesting its builders had constructed it with unnatural means. He advanced up a set of stairs, leading into a narrow bridge funneling directly into a tower without windows or vents.

Another ward activated, and he was assaulted by gale force winds. Maki sprinted ahead, draining the energy out of the shard, as it could only absorb so much before it started overheating itself.

The other three men were blown back, but Maki drove his weapons into the base of the bridge, effectively rooting himself in pace. The first wave of defenses had been sadistic, but this was child’s play. Was Yokai not some sort of self-styled master enchanter?

Gauging the slight breaks in the wind, He drove his kusarigama forward one at a time, slowly inching his way towards the entrance. The others were gone, probably blown off the bridge, but he would make it!

Maki passed through the entryway, and the wind suddenly abated. He grinned, falling into a crouch, when his heart skipped a beat. And another. In a panic, the Karyudo Kisai rushed back out of the entrance, and his chest started pounding as his heart reasserted its natural rhythm. A death field?!

The wind again manifested, and blew him off the stairs. He landed hard, somewhere outside the periphery of the magical wards, the breath blasted from his lungs. He cursed his foul luck. No one; not ten men, not a hundred men, could break through these wards if they all died in seconds!

“Damn you, Yokai…”

Kaileena crept beside the master the following night, watching the slow rise and fall of his chest. She still had the bruises of his last rampage, and until now, she’d feared this man more than anything. Not anymore.

She cast a spell of Blood Magicka, consuming some of her life energy in nimble, mystic passes as her familiar had instructed. Her veins appeared starkly pronounced as her blood was consumed for energy, and while the sensation was unpleasant, the flow of power was intimately enticing.

For her current task, she needed only a little power, however, and didn’t feel the rapid decrease in strength that she had the first time in her room.

Kaileena touched the master lightly on the head, and caused some of his brain synapses to fire more slowly, forcing him into a far deeper sleep; one which would last about a day or so. Looking around to ensure that no one was about, she reached into the folds of his robe, and felt around for the keys. She felt his coin pouch, and pulled that out, deciding that she’d made him plenty of money over the years and that whatever he had on his person was much deserved albeit piteously unequal back pay.

Digging deeper, she chuckled lightly, for the key was far lower than she thought. He really didn’t trust anyone with this.

Kaileena plucked the key from his undergarments, wrinkling her nose at the smell, and darted silently over to the door.

The master had really spared no expense this time; the new lock was made of forged steel. Not even Oil of Vitroil would have dissolved its parts enough to open it. But she didn’t need the oil this time.

There was a sound behind her, and Kaileena turned in a panic. It was Shohiri. She looked to the master, then to her, and smiled, turning back into her room.

“Wait.” Kaileena whispered, and her friend paused, peeking back out the door, "Come with me."

Shohiri shook her head, "That world out there is something I no longer belong in. You were meant for something more, though, so go out and find it."

At that, she left Kaileena to her escape, and she sighed. The key fit perfectly, and Kaileena slid open the reinforced door for the second and final time of her life, daring one last look before turning to face her freedom.

It was night, as before, but her guardian was already with her. She would have been afraid for Gatsuyu, but Lord Minamoto had offered his word that he would be protected, and one’s word could not be repealed, not in Teikoku.

Keep to the shadows, and you will find a traveler’s cloak and a sack of food left beside the building twelve paces forward and thirty seven to the left. The owner is belligerent, but wealthy, and will not suffer from the loss.” Guardian advised telepathically, and Kaileena nodded, then gasped, "I’m so sorry, but we never introduced; I was too scared to think of it at the time. I am Kaileena Kazeatari, daughter of Shinabi Kazeatari."

Guardian didn’t immediately reply, “Refer to me as Guardian. The name I had in life is one I desire never to hear again”.

“Do you know why I chose a hammer, brother?” his lost child mused, toying with the solid darksteel weapon that he now favored, admittedly a far cry from the weapon he’d used at the summit of Sottarfar during the final battle of his Dreadborne Legion.

Surthath didn’t answer, focused on his next moves.

"A sword kills far too cleanly, too quickly. It is pleasing to feel it sink into flesh, to see the look in your enemy’s eyes when they know that death approaches, but I feel so…so unsatisfied by that method. I find it much more pleasing to use a hammer, or a mace. You can crush, smash, shatter bone, pulverize muscle and sinew; leave your enemy broken before you. It is then and only then that you can deliver the final, merciful blow. That is precisely how I intend to leave you, brother."

“You seem to forget, son!” Surthath replied vehemently, motioning to the board, “The Eternal Return will decide where and under what circumstances we face, and if my players are successful it may well be the other way around."

Dur’Artoth smiled, releasing a foul breath that suggested he’d eaten rotting flesh. Judging by how far he’d fallen, Surthath didn’t overly consider the possibility.

“You still hope to defeat me? How pathetic.” Dur’Artoth chided, watching as he advanced a wizard piece, "Even after all this time, I see that circumstances have not taught you wisdom."

Surthath shook his head, waiting for his lost son to make his next move, "You may have grown in power, but in having done so, sealed your doom. You fail to realize that personal strength does not win a battle. Your servants, nay, slaves, follow you only out of fear, and because of this your forces are weaker. For mine shall come to me with true belief in our combined cause."

“We shall see, fool. We shall see…”

“It won’t be much longer now.” Itaku said to the Lord’s assembly.

Lord Minamoto, Lord Takauji, Lord Kiromichi, and Lord Tetsyyubo; Central, South, West, and North. They had all come at his behest in order to discuss what had come to be termed The Yokai Incident.

“Through some manner of pact with an extra-planar entity, he has easily surpassed half of the Renmei Kisai combined, and his wards have been described to me as virtually impervious to physical infiltration. We have to offer the enchanters probation in order to gain their help.” Itaku continued, having discussed the details of Maki’s report on the defenses of Yokai’s lair. That his second in command had sacrificed so many hopefuls was appalling, but the fool had managed to return with genuinely valuable insight.

“A death ward? A field of invisible energy that stops a heart? Interesting.” Lord Tetsyyubo the Cowled said in his peculiar, emotionless, genderless voice, tapping his fingers against his armrests, "I will have that researched. It might prove to be an interesting tool."

The current lord of the North District had always been somewhat of an oddity, primarily due to the fact that no one had seen his face, or even his hands, as he always wore a full layered robe with armor, including a wood and steel helm. They also said he was a master swordsman, though not a soul had actually seen him fight since the night in which he defeated the previous Lord of the North in single combat. Rumors spread that Lord Tetsyyubo had started and ended the fight with just a single stroke of his black blade.

“I find your fascination with the arcane to be…disturbing, Lord Tetsyyubo. In any event, we only have the options of involving the Renmei Kisai, or sending in an army and hoping that enough can make it through the defenses to threaten perhaps the most powerful enchanter on the entire continent. I fail to see the wisdom in the latter course.” Itaku concluded, and the murmur of debate raged on for a few minutes between the Four Lords and their chief lieutenants.

The Hitorigami was not in attendance, nor did he ever attend such ceremonies, for it was considered inappropriate for more than a few to hear his voice at a time.

“I have read the dossier on this man, and he sounds extremely dangerous.” said Lord Minamoto, the well renowned Lord of the Central District, “It would be irresponsible for us to allow this criminal to enact his plans and threaten the people of this land”.

“Threaten us? Not likely.” Lord Takauji of the South District replied gruffly, "The man is a lone fanatic. He has no supporters, and will gain none, unless of course we lead the Renmei Kisai right to his doorstep. Maybe their…err…allegiances, could be called into question at such a critical moment. As is, his greatest power is in his wards; in single combat, you and the Colossus were nearly able to deal with him. I hardly see a reason to mount a full scale invasion for such a fool. If however, you wish to wait until he crawls out of his hole, I am sure a small squadron of the Karyudo Kisai could do what you ask us to do with an army."

“I second Lord Takauji’s decision. And there is another issue that my fellow lord failed to mention.” added Lord Kiromichi of the West District, staring blankly into a glass orb suspended from his cloth bracer, "If we mount an army it will leave large segments of Teikoku unprotected. While the Pirate Lords are currently our allies, such men might see our vulnerability and strike, as rabid animals do not often differentiate friend from foe."

“I think we are prepared to call a vote.” Lord Tetsyyubo the Cowled said coolly, "I vote nay."

“Nay.” seconded Lord Takauji, and Lord Kiromichi merely shook his head to signify his answer.

“I vote in favor, though it serves little purpose now.” Lord Minamoto said with some measure of disdain in his eyes.

“Three to one, and the vote is cast. We will not offer our assistance; the Karyudo Kisai is judged as capable of handling this task.” Lord Tetsyyubo decreed, “I am sure you will figure something out, commander”.

Itaku turned to leave, but Lord Kiromichi cleared his throat.

“Was there something else, my lords?” He asked, and the Lord of the West district looked at him with his odd blank eyes, as if he were sleepwalking, "I desire to know more about Maki’s last report, concerning the events surrounding the Renmei Keiji conspiracy."

Itaku nodded, "As of their allegiances, associates, and whether or not the thirty or so eliminated were the bulk of their ranks, we aren’t yet sure. Little has been gleaned of them other than that they are called the Renmei Keiji, or “Death League”, or “Cult of Death”, that they may have ties with an eastern presence called the Dread-Born, and that they openly participate in human sacrifices."

“Vile Savagery.” Lord Minamoto cursed, his hand grasping the arm of his seat in a white-knuckled grip. Itaku shared the sentiment.

“As for the event itself, we lost several skilled agents, but successfully routed them. There was also a report that the cultists had opened some sort of…gate, or portal, and that something had stepped out of it.” Itaku continued, "The descriptions vary widely, but the consistent attributes show a being with red skin, a silver mask, and a black cloak. There have been no further sightings of this creature, and what relation it had to the cult is utterly unknown."

“Were any of them captured alive?” Lord Kiromichi asked, and Itaku nodded, "Just one. The man was utterly insane, babbling incoherently about the All-One, and the End Times."

“Do you think they follow the Dread Hammer?” Kiromichi asked, and Itaku replied, "There is suspicion of this, but we aren’t sure. Any traces of the cult are elusive, and the only members or associates that we capture are similarly insane and give nothing during interrogation."

“Disappointing. Is there anyone searching for the creature?” Minamoto asked, "Whatever it is, it cannot be allowed to roam free."

"I understand that, my lord, but we don’t know where to look. When a few sightings are reported, we can then begin to close the net as we did with Yokai and the cult. I must ask you to be patient."

That seemed to satisfy him, and the other lords remained silent.

"Very well, when reports are forthcoming, set the Colossus to the task of finding either the cult or the creature, while you continue to seek a solution to Yokai. We are adjourned."

Guardian?” Kaileena asked as she walked through a small clearing, and the being within the lamp awakened, drawing more of its attention to her without actually leaving the lamp, his mind-voice echoing in her head.

Kaileena?” he asked, and she considered for a moment before saying, "What am I, exactly?"

Guardian focused his full attention, and even metaphysically, she felt the weight of his gaze, "Your species is distantly familiar to me. You are of the Silkrit, specifically of Moonshadow, realm of the Old One Surthath, or, as you call him, a Totoanatsukami."

She was born in the realm of a god?

I cannot say for sure where you were born, but that is where your lineage lies. It could be nowhere else.

After a thoughtful pause, Guardian continued, “There are still, to my knowledge, Silkrit spawning from their original home world, but they appear much differently, as several generations spent on Moonshadow have changed the Silkrit genealogy somewhat. Their silvery skin turned blue or rarely turquoise, and they also developed prominent mammalian traits, including…well, I think you know of this already. Within Surthath’s domain, they also inherited an extended life period, lasting healthily well into several centuries or even a millennium or so”.

She would live for centuries?! The thought seemed even more outlandish than the last; she could outlive everyone she knew, could outlive Teikoku itself if the pirates ever had their way.

What are my people like?” Kaileena asked, and Guardian continued, "Generally speaking, they are of a goodly weal. Laborers, skilled artisans, occasionally quite powerful Magi, devoting themselves to worship of Surthath against his decree."

Surthath doesn’t want to be worshiped?

That is correct. Surthath considers himself to be powerful, but not omnipotent. While his sphere is magicka, fate, and divining the future, Surthath supposedly only sees possible futures, and possible pasts. He considers knowing exactly what will occur as something beyond him; he cannot breach certain ineffable rules of the multi-verse, and most importantly, has oftentimes failed in his attempts to positively influence the mortal spheres. Therefore, he does not wish to be called a god. Nevertheless, the Silkrit venerate him by seeking knowledge and becoming wiser by meditation. Since it is only a positive thing, Surthath tolerates their worship, but he does not desire it.” Guardian explained, then, ”The Silkrit are also prized as lovers, due to their soft skin, tender dispositions, and receptive, responsive anatomy. You shouldn’t be ashamed of what you did in that place, only that you were forced to do it.”

Kaileena smiled awkwardly, "...Thank you. But I don’t think I’ll be a lover if I ever go to Moonshadow."

I understand.” Guardian replied, and her smile widened, knowing at last from whence she came, and that she was born of a noble race. If only she could have told father what she’d learned...

He seemed to sense her feelings, and paused again, thinking.

"Little one, nothing truly dies. Nothing is wasted in the grand scheme of the multi-verse. Energy and matter cannot be destroyed or created; what exists has always existed in some form. We merely…become something else."

I guess so. I just wish he were still as he was before…” Kaileena replied, hey eyes falling to the knee-length grass as she walked.

I have a question for you, if you would indulge me.” Guardian said, and she nodded, “When you woke me, I sensed trepidation from you, but not fear. I can appear…imposing, and find it curious that you weren’t afraid of me. Why is that? It has bothered me since we left”.

“I don’t know.” Kaileena replied honestly, "Somehow, I sensed no threat in you."

Guardian didn’t reply, and Kaileena felt awkward as she entered a stretch of deep woods alongside the more flat plains, forsaking the road in order to avoid travelers. She would have plenty of time to use the road in winter when no one would be around, and that was the only time she would really need it.

Thank you, Kaileena Kazeatari.” Guardian replied, and she would have looked at him askance if possible.

“What?” she asked, and Guardian replied, "I feel keenly the burden of my past sins, and thought that should anyone ever look upon me they would see the evil that I had done and thus regard me as evil. They would consider me kin to the being that I long ago diverged from."

Kaileena paused, “What do you mean?”

“I...worry not, Little One. It is a fleeting thing.” Guardian eventually replied. She honestly wasn’t sure what to say, so she focused on not tripping over stray bushes and low hanging branches. After all this time, she’d come to like the softness and comfort of the brothel kimono, and tried not to get it torn up in the dense foliage.

“The item you mentioned is nearby?” Kaileena finally worked up the courage to say, and she felt the affirmation, "Yes. And you also wonder why it’s important? You require an item to focus what power you have. Without a focal point, you will be unable to weave enchantments, and will be forced to rely on Blood Magicka alone. What you seek is such an item, crafted for a low-ranking enchanter of the old order of the Renmei Kisai. I will say when you are upon it; simply maintain your direction."

Kaileena nodded, remembering her lessons with Guardian. Enchanting was essentially mechanizing a more primal version of magicka which was used by Kamiyonanayo and certain mortals blessed by Surthath. Surthath never found a prominent influence in the lands of Teikoku, and therefore, had never enabled the creation of what Guardian termed “Magi”.

Still, the people of Teikoku had perfected another means to magicka. Through items such as jewelry or weapons it was possible for an enchanter to channel magicka, or in rare occurrences, life energy, and focus it into the items. After this occurred the enchanter could effectively store the energy for later transfer, or reconstruct the item so it would be able to perform a single magickal effect, called an enchantment.

This was a roundabout method, but it allowed even those without inherent magicka to cast spells, without the boon of Surthath. While she had little magicka to use, she could harness small amounts of her own vitality to power such an item, and Guardian would assist her in the creation of new enchantments.

Stop, right there.” Guardian advised, and Kaileena kneeled over a copse. About four feet deep, the small burrow appeared to have once been a well, but nature had long ago reclaimed it, hiding even faint traces of stonework and leaving only a deep depression.

So much for keeping these clothes clean…” she muttered to herself, and Guardian replied mirthfully, “I will teach you an enchantment which will clean clothing. It is a simple process. Now get digging!

Kaileena took out a small shovel that she’d snatched up from a refuse pile back in Fusestu. The things people threw away.

She drove the wooden tip into the loose soil and undergrowth, and after only a few loads of dirt, she was panting. It was an odd thing, but she didn’t think she possessed sweat glands.

Kaileena struck something hard after a few minutes, and started pawing away at what was left. She found a length of steel so tarnished it looked more like iron, and as she started digging around the point, it appeared to curve slightly at the ends.

What a mess.” Kaileena groaned, brushing herself off, "But I got it out."

The item was long, longer than a katana. It was one solid piece of steel, very thin along its length, leading to a round head. The head of what she now understood to be a staff was comprised of a ring with a five-pointed star. There was a smaller identical head on the opposite end, and there was some old wrapped cloth near the center to serve as a handle.

Now, for your first lesson try scraping off all that rust and grime with only your blood magicka. Then we will get to the clothes.

“Hah! Now that is a plan I can get behind!” Koukatsuna said, eyeing Aika with a wide, toothy grin.

“Then we have your support?” she asked, and the Silkrit Bladedancer nodded, "Yes, yes, Shirudo can count on me."

As the messenger departed, leaving him alone in the sparring room, Koukatsuna drew his twin barbed long swords, stolen from the corpse of a fallen Skraul, and felt himself pulled into the rhythm of his bladedancing.

When the Kamiyonanayo under Lord Surthath had departed with the majority of his people, they’d left behind a gift; a set of martial skills to be passed down that involved the conversion of the body’s raw magicka into adrenaline. A Silkrit of significant magickal potency could sacrifice his ability to cast spells in order to substantially augment his fighting prowess, or even cast minor spells while fighting.

The spells were beyond him, flitting in and out of his focus whenever he tried to visualize them, but he had enough raw energy and aggression to make up for it. While he couldn’t quite match Ryū’s unorthodox and impossibly acrobatic style, Koukatsuna could nearly match his skill.

Most vampyres he'd fought thought him to be just another freed peasant, but learned very quickly that Koukatsuna was actually a former pit fighter, trained for combat. And with the added capabilities of bladedancing he was no base prey...

The darksteel swords, Waru and Saku, rip” and “tear”, were as sentient as their former wielder, but hadn’t despised him for the loss of their master. Indeed, they applauded him, desiring above all else to be held by a perfect warrior.

In the few years under Ryū ’s guidance, Koukatsuna had never been defeated, but still he craved stronger and stronger enemies to prove his supremacy. And the swords constantly urged him to greater heights, desiring the glory just as much as he did.

As he felt the blades awaken, the bladedance overcame him, and Koukatsuna exploded into motion, dodging, parrying, cross-cutting, and eviscerating unseen opponents. He spun and dashed, weaving a web of darksteel, his body twisting and contorting to allow strikes from unexpected angles, focusing his onslaught against a single phantom target.

Kidney, kidney, underarm, shoulder, each motion leading seamlessly into the next, every minute undulation of his body wholly devoted to offense, meant to bewilder an opponent rather than truly evade them.

The barbs of Waru and Saku were designed to draw extra Vitrium, thus they were able to sustain themselves even without a vampyric wielder. Able to use their weapons and even some of their powers, he’d been mistaken for Ryū more than once.

His frenzy subsided, and Koukatsuna suddenly disengaged from his feigned conflict, slumping over to vent excess heat through panting. He turned his head to see his fellow Te Fukushu crowding around the threshold of the chamber, staring agog. He snorted, his strained throat making a rasping sound, and he sheathed his blades in the richly ornamented metal scabbards that housed them.

“You got nothing more important to set yourself to? Fine, I’ll give you a task; somebody get me a drink! To go!”

Are you certain this is wise?” Guardian asked, having to nudge her telepathically in order to carry his concern.

“Yes. We can find it before anyone uncovers me.” Kaileena whispered, her features hidden by her thick cloak. Guardian had located another treasure for her, something she’d need to carry out her journey.

Kaileena had given it careful consideration, and decided that in order to be truly free, she’d have to find a way to travel to Moonshadow and her people. It saddened her, enough to make her cry, that she would never see Gatsuyu or Hana ever again, but knowing her presence had only ever harmed them it was an easy choice to make.

The best she could do for those she cared about was to stay away.

Kaileena…” Guardian whispered, and she sighed, wearily, nonetheless grateful for his support.

She had to find a way to her home world, and the best place to find it would be the Renmei Kisai, the League of Enchanters. Guardian knew several spells that would take her to Moonshadow, but they were far too demanding for one of her skill. Thus, her current destination.

They might be under the thumb of the Hitorigami, but the Renmei Kisai would surely not close their doors to her, now an enchanter herself. They had to have materials and research of portal magic. Thanks to Guardian, Kaileena knew they were housed in the North District, near the summit of the mountain reaches.

However, in order to reach and survive in such a harsh land, she needed money to purchase better supplies, and Guardian had located a hidden store of gold within the fringe village of Makutsa.

North and east of Fusestu, Makutsa was a far harsher place, the customs more in line with the North District. Guardian had instructed her that the Renmei Hyakusho, a peasant-led uprising that had based here, had recently been crushed by the ruthless Lord Tetsyyubo, and that the remaining supporters of the renegade faction had gone into hiding, opting to live as outlaws rather than under the reign of their oppressor.

Violent folk, to be avoided.

A cloaked figure was hardly an odd sight in Makutsa, thanks to this, and Kaileena was able to weave her way in and out of the crowds unnoticed, holding in her forked tongue with conscious effort. Her prize would be buried next to a drainage ditch.

Guardian…” Kaileena whispered, minding the cloth-wrapped staff across her back, “If you were imprisoned within the lamp as long ago as you say, how do you know the ways of this land?

While it was indeed centuries ago that I was whole, and though I have spent every moment since then within the lamp, I have become privy to the changes about the land. You could say that I dreamed of this land as the lamp found its way here.

She crossed unhindered into the next street, and her heart skipped a beat. A man…a giant, was walking through the crowd. Covered from head to toe in armor, he sported a massive wooden club with metal studs, a kanabo, and the entire mass of people parted before him. Darting to the side, Kaileena passed him, not daring to breathe, and as their backs faced each other…he stopped. There was a grating sound, like gnashing teeth, and he was turning around.

Turning around to face her.

Run, child. Run!” Guardian commanded, and Kaileena broke into a sprint, withdrawing her wrapped staff. There was a thunderous sound behind her, and the villagers started to panic, dispersing in a terrified, disorganized mob.

She quickened her pace, and the sound repeated, like a peal of thunder, and again.

Just his footsteps; gods, what was he?!

Kaileena dared to turn her head and she screamed, seeing the man, weapon drawn, pursuing her and gaining speed. His strides devouring hers, the man was nearly within reach to swing. How could something so big move so quickly?!

To the right, now!” Guardian said, and she broke right, through another alleyway. The man, the giant, turned with her, his broad shoulders clipping the walls.

To the left, into the building!” Guardian advised, and Kaileena burst into a tea house, startling the several patrons in attendance. She leaped right over one of the tables, sending up a flurry of drawn swords and curses, and the Colossus burst in behind her, plowing right over them, flipping up the table with one swing of a gargantuan arm.

Invoking the latent power within her staff, Kaileena activated its enchantment, and through telekinesis, several glass bottles were launched from their places and catapulted into the Colossus, shattering on impact. In the panic, the men chose the Colossus as the threat, and they were driven under by his massive club, one of them sent right into the wall, though it was only a glancing blow.

He would live. They all would. The giant only wanted her for some reason.

Kaileena was already at the far hallway, into a room, then through the window, taking her course back into the street.

Well done.” Guardian said, and Kaileena gasped as a resounding crash nearly blew her off her feet. She turned her head as she ran, seeing a gaping hole where a solid wall had once stood, and the giant once again in pursuit.

It’d taken her many days, but she’d stored some level of power into her only other enchantment by harvesting any excess life energy used during her travels, and thus she had one more spell. Actually creating or destroying anything was impossible, but she could change the essential nature of things through basic transmutation. Turning, Kaileena waved her staff, the power of its activation destroying the wrappings of the weapon and exposing it for what it was, and the dense sediment beneath the giant turned to quicksand, which began funneling into a whirlpool.

The giant tripped, his footing lost, and he sank into its depths, swallowed up. Kaileena didn’t want to kill him, so she set a contingency that would release him after he lost consciousness. Whether or not the villagers decided to aid him, he would live, and she could escape.

There were many who saw what she’d done, and poignantly didn’t get in her way; she could see the fear plain in their eyes. They didn’t see her face or her tail, didn’t know her identity, but she’d undoubtedly used magicka and they knew that much.

She didn’t stop to explain…

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