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

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Chapter 9

“When you’re right, you’re right, Arainami. I can’t remember having this much fun.” Lord Kiromichi chortled, his ears ringing from the artillery fire, the smell of smoke filling his nostrils.

The enemy leviathan, a city-sized vessel, stood in the distance, a blockade of caravels at its head. Even from over four kilometers out, mortars and opposing artillery still reached dangerously close to their own leviathan, “The Shallow’s End.”

“I do find it hysterical that you needed my weapon to make this little campaign possible. For once the pirates require my people’s technology.” He said, to which she eyed him foully.

“The designs were already there. It just seemed impossible to create on our end. You got lucky by perfecting it first, that’s all.” Lord Arainami replied bitterly, “Besides, it wouldn’t have been as enjoyable without you here.”

Lord Kiromichi conceded the point; they’d been rivals in their youth, each striving to absorb or destroy rogue smugglers and seafaring marauders, either to preserve order or remove the competition. It had been a profitable, enjoyable, blood-soaked journey.

“You still got the mark that I carved into you with my blade?” Kiromichi asked.

“You still walk funny on that ankle?” Arainami replied, and they shared a laugh.

“The leviathan will be within firing range of the long guns soon. Have your men prepared the device?” Arainami asked, and the Lord of the West District smiled, “Of course, of course. It will be ready to use long before the enemy fleet can damage us too severely.”

Arainami’s enemies, not just her rival lords but a surprising number of supposedly neutral smuggler ships, had banded together quickly, in far greater numbers than either of them had predicted, and even with Kiromichi’s own war fleet bolstering hers Arainami was still slightly outnumbered by the allied forces against them.

Hence, the device...

The caravels on both sides as well as his own specialized schooners began to encircle one another, cannons aiming low to puncture the hull and sink the enemy vessels. It’d been little more than a show up to this point, but now it was time to see which force was the stronger.

It seemed to happen all at once; the calmness suddenly giving way to a maelstrom of smoke and fire, iron projectiles sailing through shattered metal, wood, and flesh, displacing some of it bowshots into the sky. Shouts were drowned out by the barrage of cannon fire, and ruined sea craft spun and top-sided as they sunk into the open sea, attracting a few sharks to scavenge the ruined bodies of the crew.

Glorious.

“We’ll need to push through the lesser crafts to get to the prize.” Arainami noted, eying the enemy with a scowl, her teeth and tattoos giving her an almost bestial countenance.

“Why can we not simply plow right through the smaller crafts? With this monstrous ship the apex would crack right through their miserable hulls.” Kiromichi asked.

“My people foresaw that when the leviathans were first created. All caravels, even those re-purposed from enemy ships, are rigged with grappling cables. It’s possible to attach a fleet of caravels to the iron leviathan on impact, and then it’s a trivial thing to weigh it down and send up a boarding party with auto-assembling rope ladders.”

“You think of everything.” Kiromichi chuckled, watching through his own spyglass as an enemy vessel disappeared under a hail of cannonballs, its ruined hull breaking down the middle to be claimed by the waters in two pieces.

“There. We’re within range. Activate it.” Arainami ordered, and Lord Kiromichi motioned his subordinate to carry the message.

“Many of my underlings develop a fascination with these archaic devices. I, for one, only care that they work and are useful to my ends.” He mused, as the artillery turrets were primed to fire. A modern advancement of the cannon design, they were loaded with shelled rounds, boasted a far more effective range of lethality.

Even through the secondary shelling, Kiromichi could hear the opposing vessel fire as well, and a nod from his lieutenant brought a savage grin to his face.


With the sun’s coming marked by the line of lighter blue on the horizon, Ryū noticed something out of place in the human village. The armored man, the one the girl had dropped off a canyon, had apparently survived, and made his way here. He clearly made out their odd, metallic scent. This might be the clue he needed.

Ryū followed the scent, underground, into a crypt. There were two other bodies inside, their stink of preservation fluid overwhelming; had he not gone so long without feeding, thus amplifying his senses, he would never have been able to find what he sought.

As he stepped around the corpse, which had been set on a slab but not prepared as the others had been, he hissed, finding neither flesh nor bone but metal. This was a strange world indeed.

With no other clue as to where the girl had gone, Ryū made what observations he could, and noticed a glint of light. There was something in the remains, and Ryū pulled open a few metal plates around the crevice in its chest, drawing out something large. A small black stone, from which there were several smaller stones fused together like a wad of melted wax. He sensed a presence in the room.

“What?” he hissed, and the stone appeared to take on a life of its own, filled with swirling red energies, “Greetings. I am the Machinist; the grand architect of the Dreadborne.”

“You are a rock.” Ryū corrected, feigning low intelligence, as had sometimes saved him early on when dealing with an uncertain adversary.

I cannot deny my surprise that someone like you would find me, nor can I deny the wondrous luck I must still possess.” The Machinist mused, not really seeming to notice, its voice echoing inside his head, “After all this time, a mutual undead has retrieved me from my metal prison. Fortuitous.

“What did you say?” Ryū whispered, his voice low and deadly, but the stone again didn’t seem to notice his words, “It’s been a painful endeavor, but I had managed to store away my essence inside one of my earliest mechanical experiments; an attempt to create a golem which would function off the power of a soul. I don’t understand why the Master himself destroyed my outer shell; perhaps he simply didn’t recognize me… In any case, you are here, and you will help me create a new shell.

“And why would I do that?” Ryū asked, and the stone seemed taken aback, “You are an undead being. Surely you know of the Master, or at least his former affiliate, the Dread-

That was all the stone managed to say before Ryū drove Hyosho into it, its enchantment already making the diamond-hard surface brittle from intense cold.

Wha-what are you doing?!” It stammered, and Ryū ground his teeth, “You think me a monster, do you? You think me an emissary of the Dread Hammer? Allow me to clarify; I kill everyone bearing that taint. I am not a being of your evil.”

Wait, stop! You want power, do you not? I can give it to you, I can give-

“Silence!” Ryū snarled, crystals of ice spreading all along the surface of the stone, cracking it, and releasing whorls of shadowy energy.

“I do not want your gifts, only your death.” Ryū said, twisting his wakizashi deeper inside, splitting off chunks of the additive crystals.

No! I cannot perish! Not after all of this!” it pleaded desperately, “Master! Come back for me! I can still-

Hyosho split the stone, drinking in what life energy it could. Nothing struck the dirt; the gem dissolved into dust.

“Fate is cruel; we do not get what we want, or what we feel we deserve.” Ryū whispered forlornly, eyeing the silvery glint of his blade, “In the end everything dies, and we are merely along for the voyage; cast adrift on the tides of fate. Be thankful, Machinist, for your place in this cruel, mad world is ended.”


The long guns of the rival fleet were aimed a little too low, it seemed. The second enemy volley was considerably closer, however, and fragmented when they reached a specific elevation, peppering the smaller ships with thousands of steel pellets the size of his fist. While he couldn’t make out such fine detail with his spyglass, Lord Kiromichi could imagine men being liquefied, pulped into stew in a sea of metal where there should have only been air.

“They will be adjusting their sights accordingly; the next volley won’t miss us.” Kiromichi observed, “Should we not fire as well?”

His companion smiled, “I want them to see what we have first, and the fear that it will strike into their hearts will be just too delicious to pass up.”

Kiromichi did admit that Lord Arainami had a point; the psychological effect would be impressive indeed, if their own men could handle the bombardment in the meantime.

There was a second eardrum-shattering barrage, followed by the whoosh of the munitions traveling through the air. The space immediately around their leviathan shimmered like rippling water, and the artillery rounds deflected harmlessly off a barrier of tangible energy.

“It’s very interesting actually; the device manipulates fields of powerful magnetism, powerful enough to make a single craft virtually immune to arms fire. With such a device at the heart of the flagship, no armada can withstand it. That was your plan, right, Arainami?” he asked, and she smiled grimly, “Lord Arainami, thank you very much.”

Kiromichi gave that a moment’s thought as they returned fire, and moments later, concussive waves of impact rocked the enemy leviathan, the specialized Carbon-Thermite Rounds burning right through to the other side.

“You know that technically a woman may not advance to the rank of Lord within our own society, as they would be required to find a male to sire their children. That man would become lord.” he noted, and Arainami widened her smile, “Is that an invitation, Kiromichi?”

Lord Kiromichi assumed a dim stare, resisting the urge to laugh. Arai-….

Lord Arainami huffed, and they both watched the smaller enemy vessels mill about in confusion. Everyone would have seen the magnetic shield, and they were waiting for orders from the main vessel. It wouldn’t be forthcoming, as after a second barrage from the thermite rounds, alchemical fires were rapidly engulfing the enemy ship, melting its iron carapace. The call to fire was sounded a third and final time, and Kiromichi saw the enemy clearly sinking, its hull distorting from the intense heat.

It wouldn’t be the water that extinguished the fires as the ship sank, it would be the total lack of oxygen. He’d seen firsthand the magnificent compound called thermite; a substance which would create a flame unquenchable by water. In fact, water only spread thermite fire, and it could even ignite the air itself! Immensely expensive, Arainami had deemed its use necessary to send a very clear statement to her rival Pirate Lords.

True, while what they had just fought was but a fraction of the armada…there were other ways to defeat a foe; mainly, turning them into an ally.

“Shall we discover whom the survivors now pledge loyalty to? I severely doubt the neutral smugglers would keep their allegiances after such a display of force...”


Koukatsuna watched with elation as the hunters posted within Baleblood suddenly and unanimously lashed out at the nearest Karu, using the same tactics as before. The bumbling creatures couldn’t quite register in their heads that their slaves were killing them.

Waru and Saku wished him to advance, but Shirudo had been quite clear in his instructions; pick out key targets, such as small unit commanders, arbiters, or Broodlords, and take them out quietly.

Subtlety wasn’t his strong suit, though. It seemed like his superior wished him to fully take on Ryū’s usual task; flattering, but annoying.

The Matriarch was at that moment nowhere to be found, and should the bitch decide to take the field, all hunters would surround and overwhelm her.

“I’ll get there long before the rest.” the bladedancer promised, as much to his weapons as to himself. The first kill of a member of the royal line was an honor that was his alone!

They attacked in broad daylight, and he could see quite clearly as the Silkrit slaves caught on to what was happening and fought with shovels, rakes, and anything else that could be scrounged up. It was beautiful, really; like watching dominoes fall and collide with one another, bringing the whole thing into motion.

Boredom quickly set in, and Koukatsuna spotted a likely candidate for his attentions; a Karu that appeared to be mounting a defense. Garbed in full plate armor, the toad man barked orders in their foul guttural tongue, and archers began to mobilize, harassing passerby.

As he closed in by using the clustered rooftops, leaping from one to another, his footing failed on an unseen incline, probably a defect in the architecture, and he plummeted into space not far from the defense. He snarled, digging his blade into the wall of the next shack, his arm straining from the effort.

“Damned cheapskates.” Koukatsuna hissed, lifting his body to a handhold, and then a foothold, above the blade, reclaiming it and returning it to his scabbard. The damned armor he’d requisitioned before the assault; a leather tunic irregularly plated with steel, was weighing him down, but he wasn’t going to let that stop him.

He forced himself all the way back up to the rooftop, above a T-shaped alleyway, and picking his target, Koukatsuna leaped off with Waru and Saku drawn, blindsiding the commander. His black blades rang sharply as they fell upon the startled toad man, running through the plates of its armor and out its chest, spurting green blood.

Unable to contain his smile, he kicked off, landing on his feet and running through the nearest Karu. The nearby Te Fukushu reacted quickly to his interference, peppering them with arrows. Koukatsuna ducked into an alley at the bottom end of the T to avoid the volley, and found himself in a roofed area shaded from the sun, in which stood a Skraul.

“There we go.” Koukatsuna mused, his blades dissatisfied with the blood of toad men, “I hope you put up a good fight.”


After a seemingly endless ride across Teikoku, Kaileena found herself again in familiar territory. How she wished she could stop by her home and see Brother again, but Commander Itaku had been adamant; they would not delay their journey for her.

Still, she was excited, and curious about Master Lenao, especially the fact that Itaku had outright refused to comment on the man. It had been hinted that being so near to her village, he might know something relevant about her personally.

If this man is as powerful as they say, perhaps he summoned you and your mother from Moonshadow, and you both escaped his grasp.” Guardian mused, and the same thought had crossed her mind.

Kaileena flicked out her tongue as she pondered; if that were true, it would mean her entire life had been influenced by Lenao; the good parts and the bad. She wasn’t certain exactly what to think; she would never have been separated from her people, her mother would not have died, if she had indeed died on that night that father had described so long ago.

Her father would still be alive

“Focus on the now, girl. You’re scraping your feet.” Itaku muttered, startling Kaileena back into focus. It did her no good to mull over it, not until she knew for sure the part, if any, he’d played in the events of her life.

Master Lenao’s iron tower was noticeable from a great distance; a single pillar of dark material against the forest canopy. While the trees were dense around the tower’s outer perimeter, within a bowshot they dwindled, leaving in their place fields of long grass and the skeleton of layered stone formations, perhaps a garden that had fallen into disrepair.

As they approached, she observed small grooves in the tower’s surface; hints at a doorway, though there were no visible means of ingress.

Remembering back, she recalled seeing the blurry outline of this strange tower when she hunted. In fact, she’d passed by it many times and for whatever reason had never been curious enough to approach.

“The structure itself in enchanted.” Itaku said, as if sensing her thoughts, “Those who approach without a seal of the Hitorigami are filled with an impulse to stay away. It’s a very subtle but very effective technique to keep away unwanted quests. Those who directly intend to enter but with hostile intent are also stricken with an irrational, all-consuming fear. Master Lenao pioneered a great many enchantments in his day, including magicka that affects the mind, such as illusions or charms, some of which he incorporated into his very home.”

As they drew nearer, the other agents that had accompanied them out of Hitorigami City began to funnel out of the forest, converging in their patrol pattern intended to flush out prying eyes. Like Maki, they were garbed in black, including hood and facial covers that obscured everything but their eyes, and bore weapons of incredibly distinct shapes; needle-thin blades, sickles, hooked swords, even a few of the iron tube weapons she’d seen test fired in Hitorigami City. They crackled like thunder, and fire emerged from the tube, fire which she was told launched iron balls that acted like arrows.

While they were not averse to treading near her, the sideways glances told Kaileena they were uneasy. Even among the men she was helping, she was an oddity. That too made her melancholy.

You still have me, little fox.” Guardian said, and that made her smile, “That I do”.

“He is aware of our presence.” Itaku muttered, and she looked to him askance.

“How do you know that?” Kaileena asked, and he pointed to a descending slab of iron, revealing a thin indentation in an otherwise perfectly smooth inner wall, “A second defense; one that is only lowered when the occupant is expecting visitors.”

Trembling, Kaileena managed a nod as he led her up to that indentation, as the thin line split at its center, parting the doorway and allowing admittance. Steeling her will, she stepped inside.

The tower antechamber was immaculately carved from stone, not iron, the walls flowing together if they’d been forged of one colossal piece, with a support system wrought of buttresses and iron bars.

Only magicka could make such a home possible to build.

The interior was much larger than she’d expected, as if the walls were barely thicker than the ones of her original home. While surprisingly unfurnished, the visiting room was composed of a large circular slab of marble, with a roof of the same material held up by three supporting brass beams jutting from the floor. Aside from seven candles encircling the table, the room was utterly dark, and she could determine little outside of their radiance.

“Greetings, Commander Itaku.” A voice echoed, calling to mind again how large the inside of the tower was, and that was just the thing to break the nerve of the gathered Karyudo Kisai. Blades came free from their sheathes, and were instantly swept into the air and forced together, colliding into a ball of metal floating in space. Only her staff and Itaku’s katana were unaffected, as neither had been drawn.

“My apologies, but you’ve triggered the defensive enchantment by freeing your weapons. Don’t worry; they will be returned to you before you leave.” The man continued, utterly monotone, and appeared seemingly out of nowhere.

No. Not a man

“I repeat; Greetings, Commander Itaku. Lenao is waiting. You may leave your men in the lobby, where refreshments will be provided.” It said, and Itaku nodded, “I doubt very much they will treat themselves”.

Looking at the…attendant, it occurred to her that it was a construct, not unlike the Colossus. But it was akin to the Colossus in no other way, appearing more as an unfinished sculpture than a thing of clockwork and gears. It was the shape of a man, but utterly featureless, faceless aside from a ring of symbols on its forehead. It had skin of grey-brown clay, or more accurately, it appeared to be made of clay.

It waved them on, holding one of the candles, and Kaileena and Itaku followed it through a spiral corridor at the end of the hall, which then led up through the ceiling in the form of a straight ascending stairway.

“You are curious?” it asked her dully, and Kaileena nearly jumped out of her skin, “Your trepidation is unnecessary. I am bound to the will of Master Lenao, and he would never allow you to come to harm.”

There was something very off about how it talked; some of the words implied irony or perhaps familiarity, but the tone of voice was utterly devoid of emotion and inflection.

“Sorry, but…what are you?” Kaileena asked, and though it had no face or eyes, she could sense it was smiling, “Me? I am a homunculus; an artificial being created by Master Lenao. I was sculpted from a unique substance, and imbued with an artificial soul within a chunk of alchemist’s stone, the material that I see by your ring you are familiar with. You may call me Golem.”

“An artificial soul?” Kaileena asked, genuinely perplexed. Nothing Guardian had shown her of magicka explained this.

“Essentially, Master Lenao pooled together a massive amount of his life energy, collected in small trickles over many years. With all that energy pooled without a spirit to control it, the alchemist’s stone took on a life of its own, given rudimentary sentience. I am that stone, and within the body designed for me, I am granted freedom of movement and minor release of magicka, serving as an assistant to Master Lenao.”

“Do you resent serving him?” Kaileena asked.

“Resent? Without Master Lenao I would not exist. To what purpose could I possibly resent him for that?” Golem replied immediately, and though she knew that its situation was beyond her comprehension, she couldn’t resist blurting out, “What about personal freedom? Surely you wish to be free.”

“Curious; it is not often I am judged by the same standards as living beings, at least not by those who enter here. In any case, I find freedom to be a...hehe, a construct, of the individual mind. What is considered being free and what is not is something the individual decides. I do not feel enslaved to Master Lenao, and I do not desire to exist elsewhere.” Golem explained, “I do admittedly appreciate the concern. It is reassuring to see such empathy.”

“I find this line of conversation disturbing.” Itaku noted, and Kaileena noticed he was gripping his sword tightly.

“Yes, Commander. You are generally unsettled by my dialogue, by my observation. It is to be understood.” Golem said, “While I’m not technically alive, I am able to emulate a persona to some degree of success. Consider my personality an offshoot of Lenao’s; my father of sorts.”

Golem led them all the way up the stairs to a single door, the only one on that floor, close to the tower’s apex, “Please do not overly strain the master, as he is very weak.”

She and Itaku nodded, and then they were allowed into the private quarters of the master enchanter. Unlike the lobby the room was utterly lavish, with shelves upon shelves of books, scrolls, and curiosities, all leading up to the ceiling. There was a smaller table, upon which rested ornate silverware, bottles of sake, wine, and imported rum, and a menagerie of steamed vegetables and sprouts on a fine plate.

There was a foreign bed at the end, in which Lenao himself was practically cocooned under layers of blankets. He was old, very old, and unlike the Hitorigami, he showed it.

“You are indeed more generous to the Hitorigami than to yourself, Master Lenao…” Itaku muttered, taking a seat at the table, “Well met.”

“Straightforward, as always, just as my lord had described and your letters had suggested. Well met indeed.” The wizened man said, his glassy eyes now focusing on her, and in his eyes she saw such a tumult of unrecognizable emotion.

“Kaileena…” he whispered mournfully, so softly that it made her even more uncomfortable, “Please, come here. Let me take a look at you.”

Kaileena approached tentatively, her crest of feathers involuntarily puffing in agitation, her hand brushing against the frame of the enchanter’s bed as his eyes studied her relentlessly, taking in every detail.

“Kaileena…” he whispered, pulling his arm from under the blankets, appearing to be little more than skin-wrapped bones covered in thick jewelry laced with visible enchantment, “It’s been so difficult, forcing myself to remain in this withered body, holding back the moment for all this time. But now, finally, I can look upon you again and I know that it was worth every ounce of pain.”

“What are you to me?” she said uncertainly, and a contented smile spread his lips, “My girl…I am your father”.


The bladedancer spun into a flourish, Waru and Saku colliding rapidly with the curved blade of the enemy. The Skraul, a male, was likely another arbiter; a foot soldier of the vampyres.

“What’s the matter?” Koukatsuna asked, mockingly, “Did they not think you were worthy to enter the Way-Gate? You must be the lowest among your kind.”

The Skraul snarled in anger, buying into his taunt, and Koukatsuna twisted his blades to capitalize on the momentum, using the vampyre’s own strength to force his weapon out of alignment. The curved blade skidded along the ground, but it found itself back in place in time to parry.

The vampyre counterattacked, the sword snapping forward in three horizontal strikes, each at a different elevation, but Waru and Saku were interposed for each one, the ringing sound of their tremendous retort stinging his eardrums.

Burning through his inherent magicka, Koukatsuna made every strike carry the force of a battering ram, compensating for the unnatural strength of his enemy. The vampyre frowned, but otherwise did not betray his thoughts, letting the flow of their movements form a dance, every action and reaction in tune to an unheard beat.

Koukatsuna detected a hole in the vampyre’s defense, and he began to strike with both blades simultaneously, each point aimed for a different organ. The Skraul, having only one weapon, had to angle it just so in order to block both strikes.

Smiling at the impending victory, he made the next synchronized attacks strike further and further apart, taxing the vampyre’s flexibility to the point of provoking a desperate response. It came just as he expected; a forward impaling strike.

Bending his body back, Koukatsuna brought both blades together at the apex of the attack, pushing the weapon up high, parallel to the ground. He kicked low, striking the vampyre in the kneecap, all the while crosscutting the curved blade, knocking it away entirely.

Weaponless, the Skraul extended its fangs and nails, and raked him across his elbow. Koukatsuna didn’t even feel it.

He spun back, and reversed his momentum, putting all his strength into a double-impaling strike, and the points of Waru and Saku drove through the vampyre’s lungs and out his back.

“Pathetic.” Koukatsuna growled, reversing his grip and cutting its throat while turning away disrespectfully, “You were not worth my time.”


Shirudo advanced, arrows spitting rapidly from his bow. The four towers at the necropolis’ heart stood before him, perhaps the last fortified stronghold of the Skraul Empire.

His instinct gave him warning, and he acted instantly, falling back into a firing position. He let loose his arrow, but the arrow didn’t strike flesh, merely darkness, around which lay the bodies of his four personal guards. Within the miasma was a Skraul, shrouded in shadows that held away the light of the sun.

“The Matriarch…” he hissed, backing away.

“You have done well, bringing the Te Fukushu here.” she said, eyeing the smoke and bloodshed dispassionately, “I truly could not have found a better male for the job.”

“What are you talking about?” he asked, hoping to stall the beast while archers were taking positions on the rooftops. He marked them only by their scents, for their steps were silent.

“Hmmm…interesting. No, I don’t think you deserve the honor.” She said, “Merely suffice to say this is all about to end.”

There were glinting shapes in the shadows, and Shirudo ducked in time to avoid a hail of daggers that shot forward like arrows.

He found his feet, turned to run, and found her facing him from this new direction, dozens of small blades orbiting her body.

“I said I’d get you, bitch!” Koukatsuna hissed as he ambushed her from behind, his blades whirring madly, most strikes repelled by the swirling daggers, the rest dealing minor wounds. The Skraul-forged blades he used, surging with contained Vitrium, seemed to pierce the veil of shadows, and black Skraul blood began to flow from the cuts he was inflicting.

“You would dare?!” the Matriarch roared, bloodied, an intangible force blasting the bladedancer head over heel. Shirudo charged in with his tanto, but it turned on impact with the shadows as if he were trying to punch through an iron plate.

His throat constricted, and Shirudo stabbed wildly as the archers surrounding them fired, and a dozen projectiles glanced harmlessly off of the ward.

“I wasn’t anticipating a daytime invasion; Ryū usually favored our time to stage an attack. Pity. The rest of the inner council only required the penance that I deal with you now.”

“‘They?’…they make bold demands of a Matriarch.” Shirudo gasped, forcing air into his lungs.

“Oh? I’m sad to say I am the very lowest among my line, barely above the rank of the Broodlords. My primary function was to find and teach those with the promise of succeeding me.” She replied, and his heart sank. The weakest of the royal line?!

“The weakest, you say; what a delightful opportunity.” One of his archers giggled madly, tossing a sphere into the air, and Shirudo’s vision failed him. A sun-light orb, but far more potent than the ones he’d seen used. The Matriarch shrieked, her ward disintegrating in the light.

“This will make you a perfect test subject for my weapons. Now I just need to take you alive.”

“Jhihro…” Shirudo gasped, naming his rescuer. “I prefer to be called ‘The Grand Alchemist’, if you please. A title does wonders for one’s reputation.” he mused, “Now then, milady, if you would be so polite to surrender I could begin my experiments right away. There is still so much I need to know about the practical application and the lethality of my light orbs, and with such expressive features you would make an excellent test subject.”

The Skraul snarled, sidestepping Koukatsuna as he attempted to flank her, and there was a whoosh of black vapor that surrounded her body. Thinking it to be poison, Shirudo didn’t inhale, and when it cleared the Matriarch was gone.

“Sir, are you all right?” another of the hunters said, rushing over to aid him.

“Yes, I’m fine, thank you.” He replied, eyeing Koukatsuna as he dashed away in a vain effort to find his quarry, a string of vile obscenities bubbling from his frothing jowls.

Jhihro calmly walked over to the expended light orb to his left, unmindful of the battle still waging, scooping it up and depositing it into a massive pack across his back.

“I wasn’t aware you would be personally involving yourself in the siege…” Shirudo noted dryly. He hadn’t taken to the field up to this point.

Jhihro was their resident alchemist, a practical genius, if eccentric and nearly as erratic as Koukatsuna, the creator of much of the improvised weaponry, including the sun-fire fluid; their greatest weapon against the vampyres at the moment.

“I decided that if a Matriarch took the field, apprehending it alive it would be a feat that only I could perform. Sadly, I need to further concentrate the fluid of a light orb to completely bypass her defense. In any case, that blast would have completely destroyed many of the lower ranked vampyres.” He replied, disinterested, “Be sure to let me know when we’re taking those towers how quickly they do so. Data, data, data.”


He studied the runes he’d prepared for the ritual, looking for even the slightest imperfections. There were none.

At Tengu’s instruction, Yokai had modified the iron rings in the antechamber; melting them down and carving his own inscriptions; the summoning he’d attempted once before at Mount Renmei.

He began the incantation, magickally transporting seven vials of infused blood, forming a ring around the summoning circle, at the center of which lay a measure of his own flesh.

“With these actions I proclaim my destiny; my ascension by right of will, and the liberation of Teikoku as my legacy upon this world.” He proclaimed, drawing upon more and more of his own latent magicka to activate the Vitrium, “I am Yokai, half-blood son of Teikoku, and let this day be known to all, and feared by all who would oppose me!”

As before, Yokai felt his will reach across the multi-verse as the conjuration sought its focus, and began to draw it back into the Veil like a net. The infused blood flowed out of the vials, against gravity, swirling in the air. Into his spell, he poured his frustration at his fellow enchanters, his disgust towards the weakness of the Hitorigami and the malleability of the commoners, and finally, his rage against the Pirate Lords and their foul ilk.

Fire engulfed him, sparing his flesh and robes, far too deep a crimson to be a natural occurrence. Wind began to gather in the still chamber, forcing the swirling blood in a tight spiral leading to the center of the layered circle.

The air became fetid, and a phantom wind manifested; howling, deafening, scattering items that he’d failed to remove from the premises. A desk slammed into the wall, and splintered from the impact.

Yokai paid it no mind

Months of notes and the priceless scribbling of the tome that had started this venture went up in flames.

He paid it no mind.

Outside the tower, a storm cloud would surely be collecting, raining down thunderbolts as a side effect of the massive amounts of energy being released both into the ground and the air. The infused blood formed a sphere, and within it lines of energy formed; runes of Surthath’s fabled Codex of Power.

Closing his hand over it, Yokai pushed it down to the flesh offering, and upon contact, it was absorbed.

“Come to me, Tengu.” Yokai urged, pushed back by the raging energies. He looked up, sprawled, and his eyes went wide, for the flesh had burst open and seared into vapor, and in its place was raw power, which took on defined shape, revealing a ridge of thick spines. His summoning was drawing Tengu forth in fragments, for she was far too large to pierce the Veil as a whole.

Soon, a detailed skeletal structure was hinted at in the expanding maelstrom, beneath defined musculature forming arms and legs, the latter being triple-jointed and backed with vicious talons.

Two claw-like protrusions also extended from the back, and were covered in a thin membrane, slowly thickening and lengthening into wings.

The budding head split horizontally, revealing fangs like swords, and a deafening roar shook the entire spire, his body practically adhered to the wall from its force.

“Tengu…” he gasped, holding himself aloft as the wind abated, and the Dragon hovered before him, in true physical form.

“Yokai.” she replied, her jowls mimicking human speech, folds of softer scales and membrane akin to lips. Covered in an armor of scales the color of amethyst, running rivulets of electricity crackled along the ridges of her spine, glowing from intense heat.

Even more in the flesh, she was a menacing creature, her dark violet eyes windows to a mind as bestial and cunning as it was brilliant, and Yokai bowed despite himself.

“At last, you have come, friend of my heart”.


“What?” Kaileena breathed, standing over this man, this human man. Even Itaku appeared genuinely shocked.

“Master Lenao, you told me this woman was a result of your magickal experimentation.” he protested, eyeing the old man warily.

“That was a half-truth.” Lenao replied, “Kaileena, my heart shattered when I lost you both; you, my daughter, and my wife, Uchiki. I’ve waited so long, never allowing myself to rest, not even allowing my death, until I found you again.”

“How can this be? I am a Silkrit…” she asked, breathless, and the master enchanter raised a weathered grey brow, then, “Allow me to explain. You mother, Uchiki, was a Silkrit. During my middling years I’d been bargaining with extra-planar entities, searching for answers of the great mysteries. I sought out one of the Kamiyonanayo under Surthath, but I somehow botched this process; for while I summoned a being from Moonshadow, it was not a Kamiyonanayo. It was your mother.”

“I was utterly perplexed by this; the being before me was nothing like I was led to expect, but I opened a dialogue anyways, promising in the immortal tongue, through which no direct falsehood may be spoken, that I would release her at its conclusion. We spoke for many hours, but it became obvious that she didn’t have the answers I sought. Though we were so different, I had a device; look!” he paused, revealing a glass orb with a moving pendulum inside, “Its enchantment allows me intuit one’s essential nature; an invaluable asset when speaking to the varied servants of the Totoanatsukami. Seeing Uchiki, and knowing what she was at the very depths of her heart, I…I fell in love.”

Another pause, then, “Though hesitant at first, she returned my affection in equal measure, and I offered to permanently bind her to Teikoku and to join her in matrimony. To this as well she agreed, and for ten years I was the happiest man in this world or any other.”

Golem nodded, “I knew Lenao’s feelings for her the moment he saw her; I could read it in his pulse. She was a lovely creature, and it didn’t seem so unusual to me, despite their differing species. It certainly didn’t stop them from successfully reproducing; the one purely analytical measurement of pairing, and what an inadequate measurement it is in any case.”

Lenao nodded, grew somber, withdrawn, before, “We lived happily, here in the tower, but in time she grew to desire a child. An idea dawned on me, and using complex magicka and an alchemist stone, I transmuted my own genetic material to compare to that of a Silkrit, and after that it was a comparably easy method of artificial impregnation before your mother got her wish.”

“Do all these…Silkrit…have the power to eat magicka?” Commander Itaku asked, and Lenao chuckled through a wet, wracking cough, “No. Let me continue my story, and all will be clear. Kaileena, seeing your mother carrying you; it made me happier, and more afraid, than I’d ever been in my life. Silkrit often lived for over a millennia, and even with my extended lifespan I was doomed to be but a footnote in your mother’s life, and indeed, in yours. I wanted you to be safe if Uchiki decided to remain in Teikoku after my death.”

“...During the middling months of her pregnancy, an idea dawned on me; I, in my inspiration, thought to do something that has never been attempted in the entire history of my trade. I enchanted you, a living being, while you were in your mother’s womb, imbuing your developing body with a unique and immensely powerful ward; The Spell-Eater Strain. Uchiki herself provided the energy of the enchantment, where I provided the focus. You didn’t have any raw magickal potency of your own, perhaps a product of my transmuted seed, but with the Spell-Eater Strain you could absorb magicka cast upon you and use it to power your own enchantments.”

He wheezed, “That was my legacy; the culmination of many, many years of research. You, my child, are a living enchantment, the pride of our lives and the ultimate culmination of our achievements. Oh, how I wish you could see your mother; how happy she’d been when you were born. A baby girl, more beautiful than I could have imagined. And when…-”

Tears formed in the corners of his eyes, as they did in hers. His hand held her by the cheek, gently caressing her face, “My age caught up to me after you were born. Too much application of magicka. I was bedridden, but your mother, her magicka stunted but not so adversely physically affected, occasionally spirited you to a nearby hot spring. She wanted you to see as much of the world as she could, without risk of discovery. Unable to cast magic, she usually had a couple of wands and enchanted rings on her person. She...”

He paused, considering, “She ran afoul of a common woodland bear. Her wand that night, which delivered a potent shock, would have disabled or killed even the stoutest human with ease. Not so with a bear. She was cautious; she had no reason to assume a bear would wander this far west. They are normally such passive creatures, and would have been given pause by her unfamiliar scent.”

“But Father had been hunting that night.” Kaileena reasoned, and Lenao nodded, “Yes. Probably worked the thing into a frenzy. You would know better than I what happened next.”

His hand squeezed hers tighter, then, “I couldn’t find you with my failing magicka. I couldn’t do much of anything but send Golem out to search. I thought you’d died with her, and yet, somehow, I wouldn’t allow myself to believe it. I couldn’t. And no less than a year ago I started to hear rumors through Golem’s infiltration of neighboring Kazeatari of a local wonder; the Kazeatari Serpent. By that time I was informed you’d already escaped from Minamoto’s brothel. But knowing you were alive, knowing you were near, renewed me in my efforts, and now, here you are, and now I can die a contented man.”

Kaileena hissed plaintively, looking deep into the eyes of this man, her birth father.

“But…you cannot die…” Kaileena stammered, her voice breaking, “I just found you.”

Master Lenao, her father, smiled, his shriveled finger wiping the moisture under her eyes, “No, my daughter. I should have died decades ago. My magicka sustains me, as it does the Hitorigami, but no longer. I grow weak… But I wish to know of something; how did you already know of your heritage?” he asked, and there was a whoosh of smoke and arcane energy.

“I can speak for myself.” Guardian replied, taking shape beside her, his lower body a umbilicus of smoke. Lenao’s expression brightened, revealing his wonder, “A Kamiyonanayo! Child…you are barely a novice and you have managed to do what I could not. Hah! You are truly my daughter.”

He broke into a fit of coughing. Kaileena held him tightly. “Father!” she cried, and he seemed to steady himself.

“My girl, I am so proud of you. Your mother would be so proud of you… She…”

“...Yokai…” he stammered, suddenly grim, “I have little time left. If you are to seek Yokai, the Spell-Eater strain will be an invaluable boon against his defenses, if not the enchanter himself. But you will need something else to stop him. Travel east. Seek out the Kodama. They possess an artifact which could safely contain the immense power of the Eternal Return; the ritual that would enable him to attain godhood. You must do this, or all of Teikoku, perhaps all the world, will be threatened. Itaku!” Father rasped, blood flecks dotting the sleeve he’d coughed in, “You keep my daughter safe, or I promise you that my spirit will not rest until you’ve paid the ultimate price!”

“Father! Please be still…let me-”

“No, my child. It’s alright. It must be this way. I’ve lived long past my due. So very long. With you here, knowing you will be free to live your life, I am content.” Father said, a thin line of saliva, pink with blood, ran down his mouth.

“No, no-”

“All that is here; my tower, my research, my riches, l leave to you as inheritance. Consider it recompense also for the difficult life you’ve lived up to this point; my way of apology, which I can never truly express, at my failure to protect you. A poor father I’ve been. You can live well in whatever way you decide is right, whether you decide to stay, or exodus to your people’s homeland. I love you, Kaileena, but I must go…I’ve kept the Shinigami waiting long enough.”


“Riveting! Such innocence! Such unconditional affection! Such…ugh, dear me, it’s boring me to death.” I groan, positioning my eight priestess pieces within striking distance of the carefully laid target.

“I am in no mood to humor you.” Surthath replies, chaotic magicka drifting from his body and swirling in little tendrils alongside my own shadows, masking us and the board from onlookers in a cloud of combating energies. Privacy is the key to concentration, after all

Oh!

“Apologies, but my appointment has arrived. Excuse me.” I reply, further provoking my brother’s anger. As I move from the board, a shadowy representation of myself remains, allowing me to still view the events of the game as they unfold. It isn’t that I fear cheating from the other party; it’s impossible to cheat, really. I just want to see how things turn out as the mortals for which the pieces represent were free to move of their own accord.

I will my body through a secret portal, to a dark, dark place outside of my brother’s ability to track me. As I sit cross-legged in this abyss, fires burst into being beside me, making the tentacles of my hair curl in agitation.

He manifests in his great and terrible form; a boar-headed humanoid with winding, gold engraved ebony tusks, wielding a wicked titanium halberd. Rel’Gaarmathar, lord of disaster and destruction, swirls some of my shadows in his gnarled claws as he takes a seat opposite, grinning.

“It’s been some time since I’ve looked beyond the Ashlands. What, newest brother, do you wish of me?” he asks, his breath smelling of smoke laced with brimstone. Even a fellow Old One quailed at one such as Rel’Gaarmathar when he was enraged, which was to say, all the time.

This is no exception; though his posture seems nonthreatening I can clearly see the tenseness in his back, the way his claws twitch. Even a few moments still must be torture.

“I was hoping you were willing to indulge me a moment, while I offer you something you desire.” I reply coyly, and the Pyrefiend arches an eyebrow.

“I offer change; great upheaval among the stagnant pantheon of our kin. You’ve seen how they coddle the remains of our great enemy and hold back those with new vision. Weak, the lot of them! So we should do something about that.”

The Lord of Disaster and Destruction appeared to consider this, “And I trust you would be the lord of the new Eden you suggest…would you cast Rel’Gaarmathar aside?” he mused, his eyes ablaze.

“I desire only my due, whatever it may be. You will gain much if we succeed, control over many of the Realms…under the leadership of a Great Old One.” I continue, letting the concept entice my fellow deity. Rel’Gaarmathar, among other things, symbolized anarchy and the violent upheaval of authority, and would agree that Surthath and Anima had tried to rule over their betters for far too long.

“What say you, Lord of Change? Will you assist me as I bring the true order of chaos to all creation, and finish our ancient feud with Argosaxx by plunging the mortal worlds of the Veil into ruin?”


“Let us finish this, then.” Shirudo said, steadying himself.

Koukatsuna, Aika, and even Jhihro stood beside him while hooked ropes were launched from crossbows up to the peaks of the iron towers of Baleblood.

On this day, they would be free. At long last, the Silkrit would know peace!

“The orbs have been re-calibrated. We should be seeing a far greater rate of lethality.” Jhihro noted, idly manipulating a multi-pronged spear. Forged of steel, it featured eight small heads, each a hollow needle, linked by a series of circular bindings, connecting the points to tiny glass cylinders filled with sun-fire fluid. The spear was short and thick, about the length of a sword, with several small triggers near the end, from which there were small wires connected to the points of the spear.

“You like?” he chuckled, noticing the scrutiny, “You haven’t seen how it works; after that, you’ll love it!”

Scaling the rope, Shirudo knew there would be a blood ward; a means that only allowed Skraul to pass through an otherwise solid wall. However, the vials of black blood extracted from captured chattel would serve just as well; the wards couldn’t tell the difference between the blood of a living vampyre and a dead one.

Holding a vial as he reached the top, using a protruding spike to keep his balance, Shirudo upturned it, and spilled the fluid onto the ward. As the wall peeled away, he landed softly in the interior, setting a secondary anchor to further secure the rope, followed a hundred count later by several hunters, all carrying light orbs.

“Disperse them; we must not be flanked from behind as we travel deeper in.” he ordered quietly. Koukatsuna and Jhihro hoisted themselves up, both smiling, albeit for different reasons, Aika taking the rearguard. No one spoke.

His scouts crept into the rooms inside of the straight corridor leading to a stairwell; the standard layout of Skraul living quarters. Below there would be an armory or storeroom, and beneath that…well…

The Te Fukushu scouts motioned out of their respective targets, signaling that the rooms were empty.

As was expected. If the Matriarch had been truthful, which in retrospect wasn’t a safe gamble, the vampyres would be gathering in the lowest levels, awaiting the creation of a massive Way-Gate, probably with the sacrifice of hundreds of his kinfolk.

“We must move quickly.” Shirudo hissed, drawing a short sword beside his Tanto, his shield and bow strapped to his back.

Parry with the sword, thrust with the tanto, he mouthed over and over again, Parry and thrust. Parry and thrust.

They weren’t after base prey anymore. Based on the severely lax resistance in the city limits it was quite possible that what lay ahead was a force that outnumbered the Te Fukushu substantially, primarily Skraul more organized, more determined, and more intelligent than what they’d faced up to this point in the wastes.

So be it. They would succeed or they would all die, and the Silkrit race would be lost forever.


“I have another spear if you want it, bladedancer.” Jhihro mused, eyeing him with an amused little grin.

“No. Thank you.” Koukatsuna replied, drawing Waru and Saku.

“Oh well.” he giggled, and was cut off by a curt gesture from Shirudo, “Quiet.

Koukatsuna spotted the two Karu blocking the path shortly after his superior. He crept ahead into the still dark areas of the corridor, ever closer. The bumbling creatures were alert, perhaps seeing the light orbs in the distance. He struck mercilessly with a double-thrust high, spearing their throats, before twisting them out entirely.

He lowered them to the ground as best he could, and got covered in sickly green blood for his efforts. Koukatsuna groaned, trying in vain to wipe it off.

One of the brutes must have had a contingency placed on them, because a magickal alarm triggered, and a swarm of fully alert toad men ascended from the stairway at the end of the hall, weapons bared.

“Bring it on!” Koukatsuna roared, in no way displeased, lunging into a roll to its secondary lines. He went into a frenzy, cutting foes on either side, and bringing them together, Koukatsuna crosscut one armored brute across the throat, almost decapitating him. They fell all around him, Te Fukushu arrows sinking in their necks, chests, and eyes.

Koukatsuna capitalized on the momentary break in the line to slide to the wall of the still painfully narrow corridor. The volley being saved up for that point was loosed, and Koukatsuna gasped as a stray bolt nicked him on the shoulder. Damned amateurs!

A Karu with a stone maul struck down at the space just beside his head, and the impact rattled his eardrums. The bladedancer ducked, cursing, avoiding a horizontal swing, and twisted his abdomen to stab the creature even while holding Saku in a reversed grip. Its own momentum as it tried to pin him to the wall served to push the blade up to the hilt, but he lost his grip on it.

Koukatsuna climbed up the Karu’s arm, and drove Waru between its shoulder blade and the peak of the ribs, down into the flesh to pierce a lung.

He drew his weapons back in time to parry two crudely swung cleavers. Batting them aside, Koukatsuna cut across a spear-wielding Karu, dealing a diagonal line across its underbelly that spilled out its stomach contents; meat, either Nyeae or Silkrit, he couldn’t tell. He hoped it was the former.

Spearmen rushed in behind him, led by Aika, carrying the spear Jhihro had offered him not a moment ago. The Te Fukushu pushed the blooded toad men down the hall, clustering them in the spiral stairway.

Knowing what was about to happen, Koukatsuna assisted the front group in keeping the enemy pinned inside the breach while clay pots filled with black powder were tossed in one at a time, a few shattering on the armor of unlucky sentries.

“BACK!” Shirudo yelled, tossing the white phosphorous charge through the doorway, and Koukatsuna did indeed fall back, his face blistering as the doorway immolated. Karu flailed in agony as they roasted alive.

“The smell isn’t quite so bad when it’s them burning.” he noted, and Aika crept through the breach as the blaze settled, softly replying, “It still stinks.”

He followed, as did the rest, down the winding stairs into the deeper levels.


Dusk would arrive soon; Ryū could feel it.

The trail was cooling, despite relocating to another village, but he’d discerned a clue as to where they had gone, or more so, where they might be going. The village was abuzz with more gossip of the recent battle. They spoke of “Colossus”; the metal device that had held the black stone. They also spoke of “Kazeatari” and “Karyudo Kisai”, but it was difficult for him to make sense of it all, save that they’d gone to a great city, seat of the ruler of this land.

His head ached. It’d been several days, perhaps weeks, since he’d fed. As much as he hated it, he was a Vampyre and required Vitrium to sustain himself, and there were no Skraul in this world for easy and morally un-troubling harvesting. His mind was becoming weaker, thoughts taking longer to formulate, but paradoxically, Ryū found his senses becoming keener, his stamina improving.

It was a trade-off, he realized; exchanging what made him sane in order to make him more formidable, likewise making him more prone to feed recklessly.

Come nightfall, he would have to find a drifter or an outlaw; the villagers complained often of vagabonds within their town…was it called…Makutsa? He would take an undesirable, and do what needed to be done.

But it was a difficult, unclean notion to him. Unlike the Skraul, this race didn’t appear at all to bear the taint of inherent malevolence. He’d heard the squeaky voices of their hatchlings, jubilant and excited, frolicking at the protest of the deeper-voiced adults. He heard the females gossiping, or trading in the market. The day laborers at their tasks, right beside the warehouse he’d hid in by day.

They were strange creatures, these humans. He wasn’t sure he could stomach harvesting one. It would make him more like the Skraul than he cared to admit.

Forcing chunks of stolen meat down his throat and concentrating on the rusty tang of blood, the tension lessened. The flesh of their cattle, not unlike the Nyeae in taste as well as temperament and intelligence, was actually very tasty. But it was Vitrium he needed, not just blood, and animals simply couldn’t comprehend enough of their pain to make harvesting possible.

Damn it all! It didn’t help he’d been unable to scout his surroundings for long thanks to the damnably clear skies of this world, but the fact that he was faced with this dilemma rankled him.

Ryū sighed, curling tighter about himself, and remembered, as he always did when he was alone, the night his village was raided by the Skraul.

It seemed like a different life. It was a different life. How could Ryū claim any familiarity with that existence, if he was no longer a living thing? His mate, Oki, and the promise of what lay in their future…all of it had been stripped away. He remembered the stillness that had woken him as he lay beside her in his hut. The magical light that’d dazed him, had stirred villagers from their own huts, into the sights of hidden archers. The Skraul he’d shot through the neck.

Oki, collapsing against him, as its arrow missed him, narrowly, and plunged into her.

It felt unreal, like a bad dream he had to witness again and again. Ryū wept, pressing his head against the wall of the crate he’d hidden himself inside. He remembered dragging her back into his hut, as his neighbors and friends died all around him. He remembered again, and again, and again, as she bled out, despite his attentions. The arrow lodged too deeply, barbed at its tip and halfway down its shaft. A foul thing, designed to hook into flesh.

That look of resignation, as she begged him to save the eggs gestating in her body. The blade in his hands, trembling. The blood.

The blood.

Ryū hissed, began to thrash. Hyosho and Kaminari surged with silvery light. The blood. The lone egg in his hands, covered in it. Her body, cooling, her face contorted in pain. The void in her belly.

Ryū screamed. He was so hungry; there was food just outside. He could hear them searching for him, drawn by his cries. His fangs extended, and another hiss, low and dangerous, escaped him.

They were so close… No!

He tried to focus, and stifle the thirst. He fell into a fit of shaking, rattling the crate, surely bringing more attention to himself, “Stop! Stop…I cannot do this.”

Humans, speaking in hushed, nervous tones. They were going to open the crate! Holding the egg, knowing he would be taken with it. Knowing if it hatched, it would be a slave. Knowing it would-

“Oh, Oki!” he cried, “Our child! Why? Why?! Why did I not dash it upon a rock when I had the chance?!”

Blood, red tinged with black, seeped from the wounds along his back and chest, dripping up his neck and burning his eyes as he pressed his forehead into the bottom of the crate, but he didn’t care. He deserved it. He deserved all of this! All of this!

The top of the crate ripped open, and Ryū snarled, leaped up to claw at grasping hands amid shouts of alarm and fear. He threw himself onto an attacker, and saw Kyokan’s face. He hissed, drawing his wakizashi in-between two heartbeats of his prey.

Heartbeats?

He blinked, and found himself over a prone human, his mouth gaping, eyes wide as coins. His hands were held up in entreaty. Ryū blinked again, and he saw Oki, her blood covering his hands, her dead eyes affixed to him.

“No!” He cried, finding his feet. “No!” he cried again, sheathing his weapons and turning for the door. It was evening, the sun a red line on the horizon. He drew his cloak, covered in his blood, and found the strength not to look back as he ran for the forest, where he could wait out his thirst and his guilt while he searched for word of the child.

Gods, let him stumble into someone that deserved him in the meantime!


Itaku waited outside Lenao’s living quarters. After he’d served as witness to the enchanter’s testament, he had decided it would be more appropriate for Kaileena to spend this time alone with her father.

Master Lenao…had sired Kaileena. In all his years hunting enchanters, Itaku still found he was capable of being surprised. It was a sobering realization.

Golem, Lenao’s construct, stood beside him, and tensed as the door to Lenao’s quarters opened. He looked to Kaileena, who said nothing, standing in the doorway with her eyes set to the floor. She was shaking, and her eyelids were red, inflamed. It was answer enough.

Itaku put his hand on her shoulder, and the girl fell into him, her cries muffled as she pressed against him. Fate was odd indeed, putting this girl, this…Silkrit Enchantress, in his path. It had proven even odder making them allies.

“I see.” Golem said, “I’ll manage his preparations. That done, I shall serve you as I have your father. I think he would’ve wanted me to accompany you.”

As Kaileena lifted her head, skeptical, Golem drove his hand into his own chest, swirling about the not-quite solid material of his body, “I can withstand trauma that would kill a human, and if need be, I can use a sword and low-requirement enchantments.”

“You think the Karyudo Kisai would consent to bring you with us?” Itaku asked dryly, and Golem pulled his arm free, “It doesn’t concern me what you do or not do. I will accompany Kaileena, not you.”

Kaileena removed herself from him, “It will be fine, Itaku. I want to have…a reminder of my birth father with me.”

Even if Golem could only simulate emotion, Itaku sensed genuine smugness emanating from that featureless face, “I shall watch over you at all hours, and defend you until my body crumbles into dust.”

“Proceed with the preparations, and let us be off in the morning.” Itaku replied sourly, turning back towards the stairs.

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