“My lord!” his lieutenant cried, barging in unannounced, "We’re under attack."
Lord Kiromichi woke sluggishly, groaning, "Very well. Prepare the new guns. I will see to Lord Arainami."
“No, my lord. There are invaders in the arboretum! Assassins!” the man replied, panicked, "We are barricading the inner hall, but we cannot be sure how many got in."
Frowning, the Lord of the West District shook off his drowsiness, walked across his room, drew his blade, and followed his subordinate outside his chambers.
He tried looking to the orb, which was strapped to the bracer that he always wore, even now that he was bare-chested and shoeless, but knew it wouldn’t serve to lose focus.
He chose to study his sword instead. It had a distinctive waving blade, intended to resemble a foreign kris, while the handle was a more standard katana affair; wrapped leather and ray skin. He started twirling his wrist, dangling the sword to and fro, a nervous habit that restored flexibility to the wrist.
“How’d these men slip through the guards?” Kiromichi asked, receiving no answer.
Skilled assassins, then…
It struck him as humorous that a premeditated attack on a Lord, the first such occurrence in over a decade, had happened to him. It was true that his peers, including the previous lord, had thought him a half-wit.
He walked calmly, seemingly unmindful, through his pagoda-like palace at the peak of Kuchiwaki, when a blur of motion came in the form of an arrow, which he deflected with a latent enchantment. Two men garbed in black rushed him, both armed with katanas.
Kiromichi forced the power within his orb to pierce its casing, and a massive circular shield took form three paces before him, translucent and ethereal but solid as steel. He blocked the first swing with the aegis while parrying the second with his blade, and with his enhanced strength it felt like a child was trying to wrestle him with a stick.
The orb carried a fascinating enchantment, which drew energy from the one who carried it. All the time appearing exhausted or hypnotized because of it was only because he wanted to store that energy; he’d been saving it all up for just such an occasion!
“You chose the wrong lord to assassinate!” Kiromichi snarled, pushing, his veins pulsing with adrenaline, and the two men were flung back like dolls, slamming the wall with enough force to embed themselves into it.
“Any other Lord of the Hitorigami would have been a better choice to fight. You might have actually lived to be interrogated!” Kiromichi raved, batting aside a katana contemptuously. His waving blade struck the man headlong, punched through his armor as if it were paper, and ran out the other side, its distinctive shape serving to open a much larger wound.
He snapped his other arm to the right, backhanding an assassin in the chest and probably shattering every one of his ribs, hurling him into the distance. The man behind the curtain fired another arrow, and it bounced off his magickal shield.
His lieutenant charged the man with a katana of his own and chopped off the assassin’s arm with a smooth, precise stroke as he tried to draw. He bled out in a hundred count.
There was a rush of footsteps, indicating more assassins and not his heavily armored palace guard, and Kiromichi decided to enter the open halls near the barricaded entrance. Some nice, wide open terrain would allow him a more accurate head count.
He passed over many corpses of his men. No assassins joined them, save the ones he’d put down himself. Pity; good help was so hard to find.
The assassins followed, in clusters of three and four, and his lieutenant grew more nervous, his sword hand twitching. The poor bastard had probably never expected an attack in the city limits.
“My Lord! If there are many we should fight in a corridor where we-”
“Boring.” Kiromichi replied, "And it will take too long. I want to kill them all now."
The assassins, in uniform black, started filling the halls. It must have seemed like a good idea; Kiromichi would be vulnerable at his flanks. Theoretically.
He smiled, crossing into the audience chamber, and he was able to better mark their numbers. About thirteen in all, plus the five already dead, the assassins started encircling him and his lieutenant.
Kiromichi rushed forward, his speed enhanced, and the first man didn’t even have the chance to change his stance before his was run through. The waving blade came free and swung downward, knocking aside a wakizashi and shattering the wielder’s wrist, bending his hand at an unnatural angle. He delivered a kick that sent the fool flying, probably impacting his sternum, and spun to both block with his shield and decapitate another assailant in the process.
One tried to parry with a katana, and he cut right through their sword and through their neck, sending their head up in a brief but glorious fountain of blood. Any other man would have been overwhelmed as the assassins synchronized their strings of attacks, one leading into the other seamlessly, attacking from multiple angles. They were highly trained, and well coordinated in their movements, but he was Lord Kiromichi; he was the man who slew both the previous lord and his personal guard of over twenty.
His orb lost much of its potency, but the last added burst of energy sent him into a paroxysm of martial fury. He lost his hearing for a moment in a sharp ringing retort, though he began to hear his own battle cries again. When his adrenaline rush subsided, Lord Kiromichi found himself cutting at a body that was little more than red paste, his lieutenant eyeing him as if he were insane.
It was a refreshing change of pace, at least, to thinking him a dull-wit.
He knelt over a more intact assassin, and removed his hood and mask, revealing a native man, perhaps from the Central District.
“All equipped with quality weapons, skilled enough to get through a mass of sentries…now, now, who could do that I wonder?” Lord Kiromichi puzzled, eyeing the forged steel of their weapons. “Judging by their clothing and ability to organize, I would say Karyudo Kisai.”
His lieutenant replied quickly with a nod, perhaps humbled or perhaps unwilling to try his patience after seeing him in action.
“Yes. I cannot recall offending my Hitorigami, or even that Itaku fellow...wait, did Lord Tetsyyubo not abscond with about twenty of the agents recently?” Kiromichi said, thoughtful, "Well well; he must feel threatened by me for some reason. It really is too bad he’s only been Lord for about ten years or so. Otherwise, he would have a better idea of who he was challenging."
Not too unusual, one lord killing another. Just court intrigue, really, done for profit or pleasure.
"Perhaps Tetsyyubo heard about our dear Arainami’s offer. I think I’ll contact her again, and tell her that I accept. I would so hate to think I was humoring the Cowled Lord by keeping my allies waiting."
Lord Arainami eyed her first mate as he entered her quarters. He didn’t smile, nor did she want or expect him to. He stood stiffly, and at her insistence, untied the knots in his tunic.
“Faster.” she demanded, and he clenched his hands as he tore his shirt free, revealing his light but firm chest, a few beads of sweat from the day’s work. She eyed him from her hammock, already nude, and he moved over to her, pulling off his knee-length breeches.
It didn’t look like the he was going to protest this time, having succumbed to the fact that she was commanding officer and it was her due. A male superior could, and in many instances, had, taken advantage of her in such a way.
He lifted her leg, running his nose from her knee to ankle, and licked her toes. Arainami laid back, enjoying the attention. His tongue ran up her leg, between them, and into her modesty.
“Get on with it!” Arainami snapped, and her first mate mounted her on top of the hammock, but its folds wound around them; a thin cocoon of soft rope netting. He wasn’t particularly attractive, but he had skill enough for her to enjoy.
She gasped loudly, intentionally obnoxiously, as he drove as far as her body would allow, not caring if the crew heard them.
“Tell me...” she idly said, before moaning as his gyrating body sent streams of pleasure all along her body, her toes curling around the thin material of her bedding, “Whatever happened to that whore you fancied?”
The first mate grew sullen, his movements less energetic, and Arainami was about to “punish” him.
“They sold her to a captain, and she served as a port call.” He replied, referring to the women kept onboard to facilitate the function the men usually needed when they went to port, "They sunk about two years ago."
Considering a soft reply to ease the blow, Arainami quickly reconsidered thanks to his poor performance.
“Such a pity; just think, you could have taken her for yourself if you’d been a real man.” She replied, and the look of white hot fury as he was forced to screw her proved intensely satisfying.
“I wonder if you wish to kill me…” Arainami mused, wrapping her legs around his waist, “I’m sure there’s a knife somewhere nearby, and then there’s always my guns“. She chuckled, rubbing her breasts together.
His scowl deepened, but he climaxed nonetheless, gritting his teeth and bottling his anger, and as a rush of heat filled her loins Arainami gasped, forcing out all of the tension in her body, all the while considering her punch dagger, in case he did become violent.
“You are a cruel mistress, my captain.” her first mate muttered as he disengaged and went to pick up his clothing. Now that his back was turned, Arainami noticed the nail marks that she’d left on him after their last encounter. They’d healed considerably. Good.
“As cruel as the sea itself. Get back to your station, and be ready for more scratching next time.” Arainami conceded happily, laughing him out of her quarters.
“What village am I in now?” Kaileena wondered, as she made her way to the higher quality merchants.
She’d received a tip there was an embassy here devoted to the Renmei Kisai, where they both accepted applicants and sold enchanted wares. She still hadn’t decided exactly what she would do when she found them; ask for sanctuary and reveal herself, or request a few enchanted items to enhance her abilities. Indeed, with Guardian’s tutelage, she had already learned much about creating her own enchantments.
”The fundamental laws of magicka, enchanting or otherwise..." he’d told her, "...rely on the fact that energy and matter can neither be conjured from nothing, nor reduced to nothing. Casting magicka remains a direct means to convert these immutable forces, by either deconstructing or reconstructing the essential nature of whatever the focal point was. In enchanting, the focal point is the raw magicka contained within the enchanted items."
She still had plenty of gold thanks to the pouch she’d recovered in Makutsa, and with Guardian’s help she could pick out the item with the highest inherent charge, regardless of its actual effect or if it even had one. If the already present enchantment displeased her, all that she’d have to do was absorb the item’s contained magicka and channel it into something else, powering the creation of a new enchantment. Sadly, the item itself would then be left inert.
Her staff was re-wrapped, her cloak and scarf concealing her features, and it didn’t appear that anyone was the wiser for her being there.
“Well, at least they didn’t make themselves hard to find.” Kaileena noted dryly. The embassy looked more like a temple, with sprawling arches and odd angles reminiscent of Minamoto’s villa, but with more subdued shades of brown. A few small trees grew outside, forming a barrier, no doubt for privacy. There were numerous sentries outside, giving a sense of security, but there was also layer after layer of paint and refuse stains splattering the walls. Graffiti.
Coming towards the front doors, a guard approached her, hand on the pommel of his katana, the standard armament for the nation’s military beside a naginata or the yumi bow.
“You must be lost. The citizen’s market is behind you. This is an outpost of the Renmei Kisai.” the man said, and Kaileena shook her head, though it would have been barely visible under her hood, "I am here to purchase enchantments."
The man was given pause at that, but Kaileena withdrew her pouch of gold, having already found and worn a leather glove to conceal her hand, and he let her pass without another word. She went through the sliding door, and inside there were several men behind stands as if they were outside in the marketplace. There were all sorts of wares displayed; weapons for appointed nobles, jewelry and clothing for any with enough coin, and assorted glass apparatus’ alongside bronze and iron devices that she couldn’t even begin to identify.
“Since the guards let you in I assume you have plenty of currency, or are a herald sent from someone who does.” A robed man said from behind his stand, making a convincing show of smiling, “Well, come on then. You are here for enchantments, are you not? Remove your cloak and make yourself at home.”
“Err...-I would prefer to keep it on.” Kaileena replied hastily, and he laughed, "Hah, I see. Well, that’s alright, too. We get quite a few who don’t wish to be seen dealing with us."
She started to protest, but decided against it.
“Might I at least ask your name?” he dared, and Kaileena considered it, "You can call me...Fox."
The enchanter smiled wider, though there was mischief in it now, "Small and clever. Fair enough. The name fits. I am Kaimei."
Guardian seemed amused by the moniker as well. “I greet you then, Kaimei.” Kaileena said with a shallow bow.
“Guardian, seek out the more potent enchantments.” she mumbled under her breath, taking a closer look at the items. With Guardian’s psyche connected to hers, and through it, her eyes, all the items seemed to glow with various colors, denoting the nature and potency of the magicka within.
One of the swords channeled fire, another a field of anti-magicka. Two of the rings allowed the creation of a temporary barrier of magnetism, and another two could manipulate objects from afar. There was a cloak that blended colors to shift into any environment; that one was very powerful indeed.
“What does this ring do?” she asked, motioning towards the one object with an enchantment she couldn’t identify. Its gem was a strange crystalline mineral composed of thee long geometric columns called Bullet Rosset, which caught the light and gleamed like polished metal.
“A most keen eye, my lady.” Kaimei replied, amused, "It’s a magickally created element called Alchemist’s Stone. Very powerful."
“Alchemist’s Stone?” she replied, puzzled, "I thought that was a specific item, not an ore."
Kaimei seemed impressed by her knowledge, gained from Guardian’s memories, "In legends, yes, it was supposed to be a relic that allowed for the sort of alchemical conversions that frankly bordered on the arcane; turning lead to gold, and so on. But the Renmei Kisai were actually able to duplicate this substance through a transmutation, and found it had an unparalleled ability to store magicka, if not demonstrate the more absurd legends associated with it. That ring there is a battery of sorts, through which an enormous amount of power can be stored in order to create enchantments, or to power existing ones."
Eyeing the beautiful ring, but more importantly knowing that it had stored power in it, the decision was an easy one, “Can you power other enchantments with it, even if you’re not an enchanter?”
Kaimei frowned, "No. I’m unsure how useful it would be to you, but it’s a beautiful piece to be sure."
“Will this be enough?” she asked after making a show of considering, spilling out two thirds of the gold in the pouch, and Kaimei scratched his chin, considering it.
"For the lady fair…I suppose I can part with the bauble for a little under the market value. Just be careful who sees you with it; the Karyudo Kisai generally assume only an enchanter would carry it."
“I don’t think that will be an issue.” Kaileena said half-teasingly, picking up the ring, “I have been meaning to ask; if someone has found they had some measure of inherent magicka, but couldn’t actually use it, would they…theoretically, mind you, be considered for application?”
The enchanter eyed her critically, and the cloak between them seemed a bit more transparent. It was a gambit; the reverse of her own situation, because, to her knowledge, there were no enchanters at all without some measure of raw magicka. Unlike them, Guardian and her peculiar spell-consumption was the cause of her potency, but she couldn’t tell him that.
“That isn’t necessarily the case. A lot of people have a latent affinity, but they generally don’t develop it further. Quite a few of the Karyudo Kisai, in fact, have peculiar attributes, but they aren’t true enchanters. The difference is quite simple, my lady, and aside from extreme circumstances, only those who accidentally release the power of their own accord become enchanters. For your sake…” he added, more softly, eyeing the other enchanters amid their own affairs, “You don’t want to end up with us. They like to say we’re an organization but really the Renmei Kisai is a sort of workhouse. We are watched, always, always watched, and if we’re suspected of foul play…well…”
“How horrible.” Kaileena gasped, and the enchanter shook his head. “Never you mind, my lady, for if your power has not developed then you have nothing to worry about. Now, if there’s anything else you would like to examine?”
“No, thank you. I will be on my way.” Kaileena replied quickly, turning to leave. As she went back outside, Kaileena slid the ring onto the index finger of her other hand, and immediately felt the rush of magicka inside the beautiful jewel. It was like being doused with water from the inside out.
“What I could do with all this!” she giggled to herself, pleased.
“Kaileena…” Guardian warned, “He is here.”
She blinked incomprehensibly, and the meaning reached her when the crowd ahead started parting for something large.
Kaileena crept to the nearest alley, sneaking over into the next street. There was a warehouse, and she went inside without anyone noticing, finding herself in a storeroom. One of the wooden barrels was open, and glancing within, it was empty, too.
Kaileena fell inside, and put the top on, feeling a little uncertain for thinking to hide this time for all the good it’d done up to this point. Her finger throbbed, and she held up the ring to find it filling the barrel with bluish light. She forced the energy into her body, and the light diminished slowly, replaced with a cacophony of dancing little violet embers. Inspiration struck, and she began enchanting her staff with a new effect, not removing the old enchantment, as she would have previously done, but storing its properties within herself to then recombine with the enchantment she was creating. Guardian quickly took notice.
“What are you…? Little fox, get moving, now!” Guardian snapped, and Kaileena glanced out of the barrel in time to see the Colossus over her, preparing to strike with his monstrous club. She yelped, ducked back inside just in time to slam into and through the wall, the barrel splitting from the impact, and she slumped out into the open street, dizzy but not overly harmed.
“How did he find me?!”
“Get up, get up! They can see you!” Guardian implored, and it occurred to Kaileena distantly that her cloak had fallen down, and that the villagers had started to gather, alarmed. She rose unsteadily, forcing the wrappings off of her weapon, its steel glinting in the sunlight.
The Colossus burst through the opening, his armor barely damaged by the bowshots-long fall he’d sustained at the canyon.
What was this man? How had he found her?
Activating the first new enchantment, this one in a gold coin in her pouch, Kaileena opened a rift between Teikoku and the chaotic Aether, a parallel dimension from which two beings emerged, neither flesh nor bone.
Guardian had told her of this species. They were called Turgon; serpentine wraiths that drifted gracefully through the air, having nether arms nor legs but peculiar fin-like protrusions that allowed them to glide. They circled round her protectively, intangible and nearly undetectable to any save their conjurer.
The giant recoiled, set upon by the fangs of the Turgon as they clamped down and thrashed, tearing off bits of his arm-plates and gauntlets, revealing…
“What are you?!” Kaileena gasped, seeing gears and clockwork within, and the Colossus tore free and charged her without response.
As he swatted aside her invisible Turgon, it dawned on her; he could see magicka! That was how he could track her without even seeing her!
Kaileena wrapped a field of telekinesis around her body, and the club swung down, and even though she was admirably warded she was still flung overhead and landed hard several paces away, into the confused crowd.
“Kaileena, let me in!” Guardian implored as she rose, panting, and Kaileena dashed several paces away from the giant, thinking. If he, no, it, could track her through sensing magicka, then there was no running from him. As much as she hated it, she had to finish the fight right here!
“Come, Guardian!” she cried, and thick tendrils of blue smoke erupted from the lamp in her pack, reality itself shifting as the phylactery released its captive spirit.
The villagers, content to watch her up to this point, fled in outright terror as Guardian emerged from the lamp, fused to her through a smoky umbilicus.
Kaileena flourished her staff, only to find with awe that in its place was an outlandish two-pronged sword enshrouded in blue fire. By unspoken will, she lunged, bringing the fanged blade down against the wooden club of the Colossus. As their weapons tangled, Guardian’s wing talons drove down and speared the Colossus’ shoulders with thunderous retort, splitting armor plates and revealing more of what lay beneath.
“A construct.” Kaileena gasped, finally understanding, and she disengaged, brought herself around for another strike with the acuity of a master swordswoman, striking, parrying, and counterattacking with grace and strength that rightfully didn’t exist in her body. Perhaps Guardian was influencing her, for every motion of her arms were mirrored by his.
The Colossus returned every blow, no trifling opponent, and Guardian expelled a wave of magicka, which struck it with no visible effect. An enchantment then; one that deflected or nullified magicka where hers absorbed.
She made a claw with her off-hand, and slashed, and Guardian mimicked the gesture, raking his claws across the Colossus’ torso, tearing off his breastplate. As she retreated, backpedaling, Kaileena couldn’t quite make sense of what she was seeing. Underneath the armor there were many moving parts and winding gears, tubing and lights all throughout.
At the center of this was a black stone with finely cut facets, whorls of crimson energy connecting it to the surrounding instruments. Just before three sliding iron plates retracted and obscured it from sight, Kaileena could swear there was a presence in her head that wasn’t Guardian’s.
“We have to finish this, now.” Guardian said behind her, and the machine’s right eye turned a bright, bright red, before a concentrated beam fired from it, struck her, and was absorbed by the whorl of purple ripples. She doubled over, as every vein in her body throbbed. Her ear-slits rang discordantly, and she tasted blood.
“It’s too much; your body will burst from the strain!” Guardian warned, and Kaileena saw the best way to release that power. She flourished her staff, her weapon’s essential identity still within the fanged blade, gathering power. Black spots swam in her vision, and suddenly she could hear more clearly. She was screaming, smoldering with purple embers.
Activating the staff’s secondary enchantment, Kaileena duplicated the force used against her, and aimed it straight for the Colossus’ chest, where the black stone lay. A crimson beam emerged from her weapon, struck the Colossus squarely in the torso, and continued on through, obliterating the roof of a house as it passed through the air behind him.
As all that energy flowed out of her, the strain of maintaining Guardian outside of the lamp became too much.
“I dismiss you, Guardian.” she choked, falling to her knees, struggling to even breathe, and he vanished in an ephemeral puff of smoke. Kaileena gasped, feeling her heartbeat. She stared up, in utter disbelief, to see the Colossus still standing, with a barrel-sized hole through its chest, the red hot machinery squealing and screeching as it tried to resume its functions. The wooden helm tumbled off, its chin guard singed away, revealing an ovoid face of intertwining mechanisms converging on a single glass lens from which it must have fired its attack. The lens was still glowing, but as she watched, it dimmed, and the construct collapsed, inert.
“You have grown, little fox.” Guardian whispered to her, and she fell to her knees, utterly spent. The fanged blade once again became her staff, and all the grace and confidence that had accompanied Guardian’s presence bled away. She was just Kaileena again.
A man appeared at the other side of the Colossus’ remains, holding a katana. There were no others in eyeshot; the rest had fled. Elderly, but still looking like he was in the prime of his life, he tapped the pommel with his left hand, and in an instant appeared right in front of her, a thoughtful frown on his face.
Kaileena looked into his eyes, startled beyond the thought of fleeing, and wasn’t sure what she saw there. Hostility? Curiosity? He appeared to be considering something, then looked back to the ruined Colossus.
“That is very interesting, Kazeatari Serpent. Very, very interesting.” he mused, glancing back to her.
“I have a name, and it's Kaileena.” she snapped, and, in spite of things, he appeared very amused by that.
“Very well, Kaileena. I am Commander Itaku of the Karyudo Kisai. It appears that you have summoned a Kamiyonanayo, and used it to kill a member of our organization.” He said, his eyes hinting at neither judgment or accusation, "And it also seems that the Colossus was in fact not a member of the Karyudo Kisai, indeed, could not have been, as he was not human. Therefore, you have not killed a member of the Karyudo Kisai."
“I have also not summoned a Kamiyonanayo. He is a familiar, and already existed in Teikoku. He serves me of his own accord, and therefore-”
“-Therefore, you have technically committed no crimes; not murder, as the Colossus was not truly alive, and not breaking the Veil by summoning a Kamiyonanayo, and you also have not committed the enslavement of said being. You have committed no crime at all…aside from destruction of public property.” Itaku mused, motioning towards the destroyed roof.
Kaileena nodded, “So then, what will we do? I’ve already had my fill of unfair debts.”
Commander Itaku considered that a moment, then sheathed his weapon and offered a hand, “We shall discuss it, but not here. Let us leave.”
She looked at his hand, offered freely, and was very confused. Was this man not a Karyudo Kisai, a hunter of enchanters? Had she not just practiced magicka?
“Peace, girl. You were traveling north and east, which would have inevitably led you to the Renmei Kisai. You were seeking or at least considering membership; a most lawful act to be encouraged. Therefore, you are not a rogue enchanter either, and I have no reason to arrest you.” Itaku said, “Only to escort you to your destination. Pending a particular request.”
Frowning, for she’d long ago tired of men of power and their tasks, Kaileena took his hand nonetheless, letting him help her to her feet. She had to use her staff to keep upright, so utterly drained by her first true combat. It felt a little better that it hadn’t been a person, but a machine. And she’d healed Maki, so thus far she hadn’t had to kill.
Itaku helped her along, his hands gentle, “You have a very unique talent, Kaileena Kazeatari, to devour the magicka of those around you, and I would love to see it put to good use.”
“And she let you escape?” Shirudo asked again, eyeing Aika and the prone bladedancer. His wounds were still being tended to, and he’d already drained half a battle of Karu liquor, but Koukatsuna had obstinately refused to leave until the report was finished.
“Yes. She referred to herself as “Matriarch”. It’s safe to assume a member of the Royal Line has been identified.” Aika replied, and Koukatsuna lifted his head, hissing.
“Send me back out. I’ll deal with that one!” he growled, comically so with the bandages still covering his body, and Shirudo rubbed his temples, sighing, “I need you alive a while longer, Koukatsuna. Your vendetta will have to wait.”
He cursing foully, “Fine! but I get to kill her when the time is right. It can be no one else!”
Shirudo noticed Aika’s amused look, and decided to clarify for her benefit, “No, Aika, it’s not from the fact that a woman beat him. The fact that anyone has done so is what’s causing his rashness.”
Koukatsuna fumed, not appreciating that they were speaking of him in his presence, “In any case, I actually find this turn of events to be reassuring.”
Both of his subordinates, and even the healers, looked at him as if he were mad, but he waved his hand dismissively, “Think of it; the Matriarch mentioned Ryū as if he were still here, and not in whatever world the Way-Gate has sent him to. All this time, our enemies have reinforced the notion that they’re practically omnipotent. As our masters, they forced us to think of them as gods, and yet, how could they miss Ryū’s absence if they indeed knew everything? An arbiter, even a Broodlord, being ignorant of some grand scheme is not unusual, but a member of the Royal Line?! I’ll need some time; perhaps we can use this to our advantage. Dismissed.”
Koukatsuna felt the forge heat up to its intended temperature, and stoked the fire, poking at it absently with an iron rod. Waru and Saku lay on the bench, their blades bent at a near ninety-degree angle.
That Skraul bitch…
It was bad enough that she’d killed his allies, imperiled his mission, and shamed him, but she had the gall to let him live?! You never, ever wounded what you couldn’t kill!
Koukatsuna hissed, taking hold of Waru and dipping it in the coals.
“What an insult. An unforgivable insult.” he fumed, feeling the handle growing hot through his padded gloves. Koukatsuna pulled the blade free, its edge red hot, found himself dissatisfied with its readiness, and stuck it back inside. “Well, that was her mistake.” he mused, “I’m not dead yet, and that means I have another shot.”
He pulled Waru out a second time, found it more consistently heated, and moved it onto the anvil, iron hammer in hand. The thunderous impact of the first strike made him grit his teeth, the impact working up his arm to his spine. He smiled fiercely through the discomfort, landing another blow that reduced the blade’s angle, relentlessly pounding it back into place...
...Again, and again, and again he struck, forcing his sword into its proper shape. The barbs were undamaged, had not been distorted by the Skraul’s actions or melted with the heat in the slightest. It sat in his hand, as deadly as it ever was, and he drove it into the waters, sending up rivulets of hissing steam.
“Yes, I know. Soon.” Koukatsuna whispered, reaching for Saku. They’d been shamed as well, as the matriarch had neglected to claim them as spoils. They desired, above all else, to be in the hands of a supreme warrior.
“I’m not dead yet. I can still fight. I can still kill…” he hissed, “I will not lose to her again”.
“So you wish for me to meet this Lenao? Why? Who is he?” Kaileena asked, looking through the cart not unlike the one Lord Minamoto had used. Actually, looking at Commander Itaku closely, there was much of the man that reminded her of Minamoto, though he seemed more reserved, passive, maybe even empathetic.
“Lenao is a master enchanter, one of the more powerful among the Renmei Kisai. Before the reclamation he served as the Hitorigami’s personal adviser, and-”
“Wait…” Kaileena interrupted, confused, “Wasn’t the reclamation a hundred and fifty or so years ago? Just how old are they?”
Itaku frowned. “I am unsure, but Master Lenao had a means to extend the lifespan of certain people on a limited scale. Now please be patient.” he chided, “In any case, he was an enchanter that the Hitorigami trusted, enough so to give him a special reprieve; he was free to go about his experiments and research in a secluded region north of Kazeatari. As for why he wishes to see you, you shall find out personally after receiving the Hitorigami’s blessing.”
“The Hitorigami? We are going to Hitorigami City?!” Kaileena asked, somewhat more excitedly than she had wanted to, and the Commander nodded.
“Yes. He requested your presence as quickly as possible.” Itaku replied, and Kaileena felt both awed and flustered that such important people were interested in her.
“Why were your men trying to kill me, if it was so important I was unharmed?” Kaileena asked, and Itaku looked back to her sternly, “I only recently received word from Lenao, and a missive from the Hitorigami that confirmed his claims. Those men; well…the man and the construct, were merely acting out their default orders when finding a rogue enchanter. Had I arrived sooner, I would have intervened. I am sorry.”
“Wait, if this Lenao was based so close to my village, do you think that he had something to do with me?” she wondered, looking out of the cart.
“To reveal information for or against would breach the security of his message. Put it out of your mind until you meet him in person, and then feel free to ask.”
“Have they spotted the Matriarch?” the bladedancer asked eagerly, and his commander appeared sullen and perhaps a little relieved.
“Pity.” Koukatsuna said, deflating, “I was hoping to see her again soon.”
“Perhaps you will get the chance.” Shirudo corrected, eyeing Waru and Saku uneasily, “I didn’t believe the reports; I had to send again for replies in cipher, in order to be certain that our hunters weren’t apprehended and subjugated by sorcery. The Skraul have all gathered in Baleblood, and abandoned the other settlements.”
Koukatsuna stared blankly, and Shirudo scowled, “ALL of them, bladedancer! Every last shitting one. They took most of the Karu with them as well, leaving every other region susceptible to attack.”
“They intend for something big. A way gate?” Koukatsuna observed, and Aika nodded, “Yes. A Way-gate. They intend to open one large enough to cross into another world. This cannot be allowed.”
“Yes, yes, we’ll have to attack Baleblood to cut off their retreat, if retreat it is. Can I begin making preparations for the outlying settlements?”
“There is something you fail to consider.” Aika noted, “If they intend to open a Way-Gate that could transport their entire population, or even just a faction of it, they will need to make a massive amount of sacrifices to power their end of the rift. Every Silkrit in Baleblood is in danger.”
“She’s right.” Shirudo said, “We cannot afford to wait until we take the fringe settlements. The sacking of Baleblood, the Skraul capital, has to be soon. Very soon.”
That didn’t sound so bad to him, at least, “Alright then; to hells with strategy. When can we start?”
Looking out of the cart to the sprawling Hitorigami City, there were no words in Kaileena’s mind to define it. There was so much she could only process individual details; there was a massive wall around the city, all thick stone and mortar, topped with something close to sixteen posts, large enough to hold two dozen men abreast.
In the distance she saw monuments and buildings of stone and wood topped with pagoda style roofs, winding clockwork all throughout, some of which bore moving walkways and artificial roads which rose, fell, and alternated from left to right or right to left and countless other directions. There was no proper road to enter, but instead some kind of pulling platform that lifted them and the entire cart a rough bowshot up, with enough room left over to hold her father’s house.
They were greeted by a group of soldiers, each dressed in richly ornamented steel armor and carrying both a katana and a curious wooden tube with a handle and trigger on the end. They were allowed full entry thanks to Itaku’s seal, and the men didn’t even raise an eyebrow at her appearance.
Moving further in on foot, Kaileena saw that the ground level was massive, easily seven times the size of even Fusestu, with buildings reaching far higher. The sky-roads were being controlled by men with levers, directing the flow of people like water through pipes. She saw, but did not comprehend, how Hitorigami City seemed alive in and of itself, as much a machine as the Colossus.
Its citizens wore fine embroidered robes and kimonos, none of which bore weapons aside from the armored guardsmen. As she got nearer, eyes fell upon her, but there was no abject fear or hostility that she saw in the eyes of villagers, merely curiosity or surprise.
“It’s all so…” she stammered, “So…”
“Yes. The capital has that effect on newcomers.” Itaku said with some irritation in his voice, having been practically dragging her by the arm all this time, “We have much ground to cover. Hurry up, girl.”
She blushed, but succumbed, trying to keep pace.
“Why have you been so quiet, Guardian?” she blurted aloud, and Itaku murmured something to himself when he realized she wasn’t speaking to him.
“I have been pondering. Never you mind.” Guardian replied, receding from her mindscape.
“Please, if there’s something wrong…” Kaileena implored, but he would not answer her.
“You have a fascinating ally.” Itaku noted idly, still dragging her along. They entered a stairway, heading straight up, and as they found a roofless corridor, the floor began rising of its own accord, before tumbling forward along a pulley system. She nearly toppled, but Itaku held her in place, his hand resting on the lever that operated the lift. Several minutes passed, as they soared above the rooftops.
“How far in are we going?” Kaileena asked, and the Commander motioned towards a tiered Shiro Castle that became visible in the distance, with many shingled triangular roof arches, many of them meeting in a diamond shaped point. She blinked to check if she was seeing things, but found that entire segments of the palace seemed to move, as if they too were supported by moving platforms, rearranging like a giant Rubik’s Puzzle being manipulated by an unseen, mischievous deity.
“Its shape changes every hour, if that's what you’re wondering.” Itaku noted, “The enemies of the Hitorigami are unable to send assassins because of this; by the time they have an accurate layout of the defenses the building has completely changed.”
“How can all of this even exist?” Kaileena asked, and Itaku softened his grip somewhat as he led her down the moving corridor and into an open area, “The Pirate Lords brought much of their technology with them, including detailed schematics of moving platforms and other mechanisms related to architecture. We traded them for some of these plans, and this is the result of it. No other city in the world can boast majesty such as this.”
“No wonder they don’t find me strange.” Kaileena noted, not seeing much if any apprehension in the passing glances.
“They see unusual things daily, many being merchants from other towns and settlements. So long as you’re with me they will have no reason to feel threatened. Anyway, we will be attending the Hitorigami shortly. When you speak to him, do not show disrespect, demand, or ask questions of him. Do not rise unless given permission to. If he stands, bow, and if he bows, bow even lower. Do not speak out of turn, and do not ever speak first.” Itaku advised, walking briskly through the courtyard into the palace.
Kaileena tried desperately to keep pace, but the man’s strides were with purpose, and it was proving difficult. She felt like she might trip over her own feet.
“Remember; you will be standing before the uncontested ruler of all Teikoku, the ward against the Pirate Lords and the old order of the Renmei Kisai. Act accordingly.” Itaku muttered, “I wish we had time to get you properly attired for the occasion; the brothel uniform is hardly appropriate…still, we must be brief.”
Kaileena sat on a cushion along the wall, stinging from his comment, while Itaku was motioned inside of another room, parting a veil as he passed. She tried reaching Guardian, but when it became apparent he would only speak of his own accord she was left twiddling her thumbs.
She’d already cleaned herself up during the long ride here, removing the dirt and grime from her clothing, re-dyed her feathers, cleaned under her painted nails, and even taken some of the gold coins she’d enchanted in the interim and melted them into rings to put on her horn nubs. Kaileena thought she looked passable enough for court, considering the circumstances.
Kaileena curled up, wrapped her arms around her legs, and let her head lay on her knees, pondering recent events, and what she’d lost and gained.
She had a friend. A skill that wasn’t bedding people. Perhaps soon she would have a future. But she sorely missed her father, and her brother, and Hana too…
“I too have lost. And gained.” Guardian replied thoughtfully, and Kaileena hissed in surprise, her tongue flicking out in agitation.
“I’m sorry I have been neglectful…it’s just…” he paused, struggling to find the words. She waited patiently, allowing him to collect himself, "That weapon, the sword you held when calling me from the lamp; its name was Verlangen. Seeing it again, even just its vestige, brought back unpleasant memories."
"But still…" he said, tormented, “To see it again, defending an innocent. Fulfilling the vow that I’d so long ago broken. I…I cannot...”
Kaileena smiled, “I didn’t think Kamiyonanayo were so sentimental. I care not what you did or didn’t do. I care for you, appreciate you for all you’ve given me. For teaching me, when I was lost and in need of guidance. And for protecting me, when I could not protect myself.”
A light fit of mirth traveled across their mental link, and she was thankful he was feeling better as well.
“Indeed; we’ve helped each other. And I promise I will be there for you, always.” Kaileena said, pulling out the lamp. It felt like she was looking at him when she looked at his phylactery; it just seemed appropriate for such a serious conversation.
“And I to you.”
While the connection then went latent, it didn’t dissipate as before. She knew he was watching.
“Come. He is ready for you.” Itaku said from inside the other room, parting the veil for her to pass. Pass she did, and Kaileena’s first sensation was that of running water. There was a fountain; no…an artificial waterfall, two of them, descending from either end of the opposing walls. The water flowed in slim creases in the floor tiles, intersecting between all points of the room, and it carried cherry blossom petals all throughout. There were at least twenty armored guards, all carrying both an iron tube weapon across their back and a katana at the waist.
Suspended at the far end was a massive cubical frame, holding up layered veils large enough to house a throne. The Hitorigami would be there, surely…
Kaileena sat in the center of the large room, where there was a cushion prepared for her, and bowed deeply. From here, she could see a thin silhouette.
“I have wondered, for many years...” The man in the veil said lightly, studying her, “What Lenao has been up to in his solitude. I had never imagined he might-”
He laughed, jovially, “A matter for another time. Hello, Kaileena Kazeatari. ...All but Commander Itaku may leave.”
Each guard bowed, and turned to leave without a word of protest at his command.
“I’m so thankful we have a chance to meet, and that you are well prepared for it. You look lovely.” The Hitorigami said, and Kaileena couldn’t resist blushing again.
The Hitorigami rose, and remembering Itaku’s instructions she bowed again, having no desire to insult the most powerful man in all of Teikoku. To her amazement, the Hitorigami parted the veils, and Itaku fell into a deep bow himself.
Looking up, Kaileena had honestly been expecting something akin to Guardian; strong, alien, and threatening. What she saw was a man plain of face, pale and a little thin, dressed in white and bearing no ornamentation save a single ring on his left middle finger and a tanto at his waist. The only unusual thing about him were his slightly pointed ears.
“I’ve decided that if I was to ask something of you, I would do so directly.” The Hitorigami said, walking down the steps to a point where he was seven paces away from her.
“How old are you, exactly?” she blurted, knowing it to be improper but wanting to know anyway. Itaku tensed. The Hitorigami puzzled over that, “Why do you ask?”
“I heard you two were alive during the Reclamation. Yet you look barely out of your dotage.”
Indeed; his eyelids bore many heavy wrinkles of age, but the rest of him didn’t. He could’ve been in his thirties.
He laughed again, and how open, how genuine, it sounded, “Indeed. Lenao and I are both almost two centuries old. You’ll find that time has diminished me far less; Lenao was always more generous to me than he was to himself. The enchantments sustaining me are far more...stable. I would have traded it gladly, had I known-”
His smile faded, and he looked away, distant, then, “I will not attempt to mislead, or falsely assume that you are aware of present events. Suffice to say, I need your help.”
Kaileena blinked, “My help, my lord? What would I be able to do for you?”
The Hitorigami nodded, his eyes lowering for a moment, before scowling, “Lenao, my dearest friend, has discovered something which I myself suspected for some time. A rogue enchanter named Yokai is seeking a font of power, one which would make him a dangerous adversary to all the people of this land. To accomplish this, he has done terrible things, unforgivable things, to innocent people.”
“...An attack upon my people cannot be ignored. This man, this monster, has broken the laws which govern the Renmei Kisai. The Third Law; never break the Veil and summon an extra-planar being strong enough to threaten others. The Second Law; never use magicka against myself or the four lords of Teikoku. The First Law; never use magicka to destroy innocent life. All of these have been broken. All of these bear the penalty of death. The Karyudo Kisai have found him, but are unable to pierce his wards. Should he succeed, he would be able to destroy all of this land and recreate it as he saw fit. Such a power is blasphemous.”
He scowled, but not at her, “No one man should be able to play god.”
He looked down, into her eyes, and looking back into his own, she saw a deep sadness in them.
“I know of your unusual talent, one that allows you to absorb latent magicka and enchantments. This is something unheard of, and something that Yokai couldn’t have prepared for. I need you to take a detachment of Karyudo Kisai to the ancient ruin he has made his lair and assist them in bypassing its defenses. Then, if possible, I want you to assist in the apprehension or summary execution, whichever is deemed appropriate by Commander Itaku.” he concluded, kneeling down beside her. Kaileena bowed lower, but he lifted her head back up by her chin, “Will you help me, Kaileena?”
“Yes. Yes, I will help you.” Kaileena replied, and she bowed again, “But I would ask three things of you, should I succeed.”
Itaku glowered behind her, “Girl, you do not make demands of-”
“That is unnecessary, Commander. Please, calm yourself.” The Hitorigami interrupted, “Go on.”
“My first request; I desire to be able to move freely throughout this land. Though the people rarely treat me as such, this is my home. My second request is that I be allowed to search for a means to open a portal to Moonshadow; Surthath’s realm. I don’t intend to let anything through, but I will use it myself, and possibly never return. My third request; I want to know something. I have been unsatisfied with the teachings offered to me in my youth. I cannot accept the fact that you allowed the Pirate Lords free reign over the fringe settlements. I wish to know how you came to let such evil men roam unhindered.” She said, and the Hitorigami smiled as Itaku nearly fell over from shock. He appeared on the verge of an aneurysm.
“I have a solution to your first two requests, Kaileena Kazeatari. One which I was to bestow upon you already should you succeed in stopping Yokai.” the Hitorigami mused, palming a lacquered wooden seal branded with his personal insignia; the chrysanthemum.
“This will give you the same status and authority of a Lord. You will be free to practice magicka, wander, and fulfill your own desires independently of the Four Districts. Until a time comes in which you violate one of the three laws, of course. I trust it will suffice?” he asked, “For the last request, I will fulfill now. They say in this land that the greatest ruler is judged by how many victories he finds against his foes. Truly, any man who has reigned for longer than a month can tell you that he is judged by how many compromises he makes with his foes. I have done as I must, to protect this land and its people.” the Hitorigami conceded, “Even if it entails actions that I do not enjoy. Our enemies are many, and at times we must appease one, to resist others. A few suffer, that the whole of this land and its people do not.”
“A few suffer, and then another few.” Kaileena replied, more sharply than she intended, “And then another few. And then another few. In trying to protect the people, you fail to protect the people. If that is order, then it is inadequate.”
The Hitorigami frowned, but waved Itaku away, who had found his feet. She looked back, uneasy, seeing he’d drawn his sword halfway from its scabbard.
“You have will. And courage. I admire that.” he replied after some time, “What wrong befell you?”
Kaileena saw no point in hiding it, “My father was executed, and I was forced to work in a brothel as punishment for being in the same place as their hunting party.”
There was a moment of silence, and the Hitorigami gently forced her head up again, “My child, can you ever forgive me?” he asked, embracing her, kissing her forehead.
“Yes.” she replied without even considering it, and the Hitorigami smiled genuinely, “For this, I thank you. I know the time will eventually come when our foreigner allies push too far in their arrogance. When this happens I hope you would be willing to fight beside me, for the future or our people. As it is, I am satisfied, and honor your integrity and sacrifice. Itaku!” he said, motioning to the Commander, “I want you to deputize this young woman, and accept her as an honorary Karyudo Kisai. I expect a detachment to be ready by tomorrow.”