The Phoenix Fate, Book 2 of the Enchanter's Cycle

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Chapter 10

As she dozed Kaileena passively shared her latest experiences with the spirits trapped inside the black gem.

I miss my brother...” Kaileena noted sadly, not quite awake and not quite asleep, “I wish he could have come with Nagomi to the capital. They would’ve loved it here.”

Family is everything.” Agreed the mother, “But they are safe as can be. It’s something to be thankful for.”

I know.” Kaileena said, “I just miss seeing him, and I feel like Nagomi and I could be friends. We got along fine as children, if only for a few hours.”

The life of adventure is a lonely one.” said the sailor,“But its majesty can be nothing short of inspiring. I envy you, seeing a ship at the bottom of the ocean, daring the greatest of storms atop a flying carpet. Glorious.”

There were murmurs of consent from some of the other souls, who remembered nothing of their lives and were held from further degradation only by these conversations in which they had little part.

This dream you spoke might mean something.” whispered the sailor, changing the subject.

Indeed.” said the mother, “The Dread Hammer delights in invading and perverting the dreams of others. He used us to accomplish this once or twice...and so we know that through his lies a hint of truth lingers, betraying his intentions.

I already considered that.” Kaileena protested, “He wishes for me to become a lich.Consume them” seems pretty straightforward to me.”

““...and make their husk your own.” And what does that mean?” replied the mother, “A lich would have no use for our depleted gem. And your lifeless body, as a lich, would remain your body. The gem would act as a tether, not a source.”

Arbitrary.” Kaileena replied, “But I’ll indulge. I have little else to go on. Does he want me to replace you inside the gem, to hide my soul from my body as it deteriorates? I don’t see how that would benefit him. In fact, I don’t see anything I do benefiting him.”

He might want to harm...the other one, through you.” offered the baker, and that gave her pause. The souls feared Arteth, but they tolerated him thanks to her. They would not lie to her, even related to that sensitive subject. It might make sense.

Then again...” said the mother, a hint of worry in her spectral voice, “Perhaps he’s using us to seduce you down another, even darker road. Perhaps we’re under his control still, not even knowing it.”

I sense no outside magicka affecting you.” Kaileena protested, “And my friends have inspected your gem and found nothing.”

He is the Dread Hammer.” replied the mother, as if that explained everything, and Kaileena snorted, “If that were the case, why would you have suggested that to me, and thus defeated your purpose?

I cannot say.” replied the mother, “I have struggled with these concepts since coming back from the void. It is doubtful I was a philosopher when I was alive. I just want to ensure your safety, is all.”

Kaileena shrugged, “My ideas run thin. I thank you for helping me brainstorm. For now, I think I’ll take another chance as a restful nap.”

Farewell, Kaileena.” said the baker, and the spirits emanated the implication of tender affection as she closed off her telepathic link to them.

Vala jolted awake, startling Mariko.

With just two beds between four people they’d been forced to share the smaller cushion. While she didn’t really need to sleep, it’d done wonders for her weary mind, these choice moments of oblivion.

She slipped out of bed, offering an apologetic look, then went for the door. Her dreamless stupor left her restless. And there was much she had to do.

It was taking far too long to develop her telepathic abilities. She had to get Toshisha back, but as was, she wouldn’t last long in the wilds. The vampyres were not so numerous in the South District, but the flat, uniform lands would make shelter difficult, and with the winter cold, the ground would prohibit burrowing.

And as was she had little doubt the Humans would pursue her if she left the post, though she’d tried to convince them of her allegiances. Her requests to contact Lord Minamoto had gone unanswered, though lest she was mistaken, they had made an inquiry to the Karyudo Kisai. That was fine; Itaku knew about her.

But every day that passed put the thief further from her reach. She had no way to track the bastard until she could get her hands on a scrying orb, and even then there were ways to shield oneself from such devices.

Sighing, Vala leaned against the wall outside, looking up at the sky. A passing group of soldiers scowled at her, but she ignored them. She wore her white kimono and was hardly equipped to go sneaking about, and thus she made no effort to hide herself.

Hitomi walked out as well, standing beside her. When had he woken up?

Bemused, Vala looked over to find him motioning at her, inviting a telepathic link. Shrugging, Vala obliged.

Can’t sleep?” he asked in her mind, and she shrugged, “I have no real need to sleep. You know this.”

With her increasing acuity, her telepathy now allowed short periods of direct communication, translating words into universal impressions of meaning, then back into words again in the language the listener was most comfortable with. It was good to know she no longer needed a translation enchantment in a strictly one-on-one conversation.

I know you want to leave soon, but you’re welcome to stay.” Hitomi added, earning a shrug from her, “I need my sword back. And I have much to do otherwise.”

The Human considered this, then, “What, exactly? Do you fight for the Hitorigami?

Were it anyone else Vala would have laughed in his face, but instead she replied, “I desire revenge against those who harmed me.

Troubled, the Human asked, “The ones who made you a vampyre?

I was born a vampyre. My sisters betrayed me and warped my appearance, making me akin to one of the slave races. They also robbed me of my powers. My servants. My kingdom.

Hitomi eyed her at that, “You speak of those things as if you mind them little.”

Perplexed, Vala eyed him sidelong.

What do you mean?”

You speak of revenge...but without conviction. Like that’s just something you convince yourself you want. What did they really do to you to make you hate them?

Vala looked away, “It’s not an appropriate thing for one such as me to feel.

Hitomi put a hand on her shoulder, turned her to face him, “I would hear it anyway.”

Vala scowled.

And who are you, to ask this of me?” she almost demanded, thought better of it, then tried something else, “It doesn’t matter. They will die by my hand. The reason is irrelevant.”

Hitomi did not falter, “It does matter, and I would like to hear it. Please. You can tell me.

Hating him for it, Vala let the Human sit with her outside the door, and she looked up to the sky again as she considered her words.

Finally, she sighed, “In our society, family doesn’t mean the same thing as it does to you. To us, elders represent power, and offspring covet that power. Naturally, when the older generation grows weak, or foolish, or arrogant, it is expected that the next generation depose them. To birth offspring is not done to know and appreciate children, but to produce servants, and, sometimes, usurpers.”

Hitomi eyed her without accusation, bid her continue, and Vala did. In spite of her unchanged demeanor, he could tell she was more tense than he’d even seen her, unwilling to even meet his eyes, “I was one of the Matriarchs; daughters of Dur’Artoth the Dread Hammer. One of the most powerful of them. Eventually, I conceived a child. A daughter.”

“...We can sense our children very early in the womb, and they in turn can sense us. Their minds develop differently than most. My daughter was more different than I would have imagined. She was...powerful. She would have surpassed me, considerably. She would have surpassed all of us. I knew that when she came of age it would have been her right to rule undisputed. She would have been the empress of the entire Skraul Empire. Tenri, Rule of Heaven. That was her name and her birthright.”

Vala shivered. Her shoulders sagged, “They killed her. They knew that not only would she be stronger than any of them...but she wasn’t only the most powerful vampyre I had ever seen...she was so...peaceful.

Her eyes glossed over, and a sad little smile found its way on her face, “She sang to me in the womb with her mind’s voice, and it was beautiful. She harbored no ill thoughts against me. She mocked everything we knew the powerful to be. I was so proud of what she could become, would become. I...I...-

You loved her.” Hitomi answered, “As a mother should love her daughter.”

She looked back to him, and Hitomi saw such complete and utter desolation. Silence stretched.

He held her head against his chest, cradling it, and her entire body shook as she cried. He said nothing else. There was nothing else to be said.

Against Arteth’s protests, Kaileena approached the Hitorigami’s chamber, unmindful of the two dozen golems guarding the door.

It might have been her imagination, but she could swear there were more of the things lately...

Mikoto sat as he often did, concealed behind a cubical series of veils. She offered a bow, but abstained other common abasement. He’d pardoned her from such things, and to her knowledge she was to only one who could approach him in such a way. Her scowl never wavered...

“My Hitorigami...” she said, again breaking tradition by speaking first, “I have come here to vehemently protest Yokai’s torture.”

The Hitorigami rose, and she offered him nothing. Not even an inclination of the head.

Mikoto sighed, “Kaileena, this had to be done. He has undermined this nation when it needs to be fit to combat the Skraul.”

“Bullshit!” Kaileena snapped, “I know about the compromise he offered you. Giving him his title would have appeased him, and even more, bought his support. You would do that for a newly proclaimed Pirate Lord, but not another who, at least in his own warped perspective, fights for this land?”

“You refer to Lord Kiromichi...?” Mikoto asked, “He would never allow his title to be stripped from him, even if he has abandoned his district. He would accept exile and take his fleet with him. Yokai and a few outlaws do not compare to the fleets of the defunct Pirate Lords.”

“Outlaws?” Kaileena asked, in utter disbelief at his callousness, “They are people of this land as well, enraged, and rightfully so, of your continued enslavement of the Renmei Kisai and vindication of Tetsyyubo’s butchery of his own people! How can you-”

“Enough, Kaileena!” he roared, his normally soft voice a bellow of mixed anger and fatigue. He parted his veil, and walked right up to her, “I have made my decision, and Yokai is to be punished. When he is revealed as mad, utterly broken, his rebellion will be swept aside. This land will the coming decades, perhaps, perhaps, I will be able to impress upon the people that the Renmei Kisai are no longer a threat. That is my decree, and you, yes, even you, will honor it. You are dismissed.”

Speechless, Kaileena stared in disbelief at the man she thought she knew, now a stranger standing opposite to her in more than just the physical sense.

“...Did your expedition provide a cure?” he asked as she turned away, disgusted.

“No.” she replied simply, and left.

Mikoto sat back down, the veils closing behind him. He was tired, drawn out... He just wanted this to be over.

“I shouldn’t have yelled at her.” he berated himself, “The Totoanatsukami know I owe her much.”

Massaging his temples, the Hitorigami fought back the hollow feeling in his stomach. It would pass. It had to. The land, his land, was in crisis. It had to be strong. He had to be strong.

He dismissed his feelings at losing a friend, for he had no doubt she would never hold him in the same regard. Kaileena and Adahj had served as something more than his subordinates. They were his friends. And Adahj was slain, returned to Surthath’s realm for rebirth, and with Kaileena gone as well he was alone, truly alone, as he hadn’t been since he was a boy.

“By all the powers of the Veil.” he said, thoughtful, “I hope you break soon, Yokai. Things won’t stand for much longer if you do not.”

Furiously poring over her notes, Kaileena swallowed the gorge rising in her throat.

What was it in men to abandon their morals so easily?

So angry she was shaking, Kaileena set down her work and took deep, long breaths, trying to calm herself. It became more difficult when she noticed the bruises all along her skin.

“I’m falling apart.” she moaned, recoiling, “I’m falling apart, because of him! Because he asked me to-”

Stopping, Kaileena closed her eyes, again slowing her breathing. It wasn’t his fault she was in this situation. And it wasn’t his fault he needed to stop Yokai.

Opening her eyes, Kaileena found that her hand had reflexively drawn to the amber charms on her necklace. Exhaling, Kaileena steadied herself, “I cannot betray the lady in this. I’ll save myself, then Yokai, then Teikoku. One thing at a time.”

Reaching into a belt pouch, she withdrew the black gem. Immediately, the spirits within awakened at her touch.

And then I’ll find a way to save you.” she added, “All of you.”

I see only one means of release, child.” said the mother, “But I could never ask you to weather that burden.”

I could make a construct for you.” Kaileena replied immediately, upset, “Like Golem, but more human. You could live a long, full life. All of you.”

I already have.” replied the mother, “I lived and I died, perhaps before my time...but that doesn’t diminish the quality of that life. I wouldn’t try to replace it with such an existence. I speak only for myself of course, but I’m here because I want to help you, child.”

And have a little excitement, maybe.” added the sailor, “Now that we don’t benefit the cause of evil, I relish these brief glimpses of the world outside.”

But could you part with us, Kaileena?” asked the mother, “When the time came? Our existence can’t be infinite, and I would fear too greatly us falling into the wrong hands. If we...asked you for oblivion, could you stand aside so another delivers it to us?”

It stands against everything I believe in.” Kaileena replied hotly, more hostile than she meant to be, “I am a priestess of Anima, devoted to life and rebirth. How could-”

You stand for the natural order.” the mother interrupted, “We would not allow ourselves to be used again for his benefit, but we have little say over our fates now. It would be better for us, perhaps, to become ourselves again...on the other side. Just consider it, please. There’s no immediate need, and you might still need us a while longer.”

After taking another long, deep breath Kaileena assured them she would fulfill their wishes, though her heart ached at the thought. She’d hoped to restore them to humanity, because it felt like that was what she was supposed to do, in accordance with Anima’s doctrines.

But she would do no such thing if that’s not what they wanted. She’d been in similar straits in the Fusestu brothel. She knew what it was like to desire death...

I’m going back to bed.” she finally decided, “I can’t think clearly like this.

Koukatsuna heard someone running across the wood paneling, and was out of his bedroll in the corner and standing over Minamoto’s bed protectively, blades drawn, before a wide-eyed messenger even reached the door.

The Lord of the Central District bristled, disentangled himself from his two wives, and rose with as much dignity he could muster in his nightclothes. Since Koukatsuna habitually slept in his tunic and breeches, he was able to smirk at his discomfiture.

“My lord. I come bearing news from the north.” he said, trying and failing not to stare at him. Koukatsuna walked over, snatching the missive before the youth could draw it back. He made a show of looking at it, though he could neither read nor write, before handing it to Minamoto.

The Lord of the Central District’s expression shifted from confused, to alarmed, to veiled, “Very well. Await my word in the audience hall. You are welcome to food while you’re there.”

“What did it say?” he asked, and the Lord of the Central District waved his women away as he threw on his garb, “The vampyres are redoubling their siege on Lord Tetsyyubo’s Capital. The presence of at least two Matriarchs has been confirmed in the outlying areas.”

The word “Matriarch” was all he needed to hear. Koukatsuna was out of that room after hastily dressing, hopping forward on one leg while he adjusted a troublesome strap on his boot. Minamoto followed soon after, garbed in layered robes in native style and a haori; a sort of wide-collared coat. Sasu, his powerfully enchanted katana, hung at his waist in a lacquered wooden scabbard.

They proceeded to the audience chamber, where two dozen of his soldiers had already congregated. There was no unease in any of their expressions. They were all itching for a fight just as much as Koukatsuna was.

“I’ll keep this brief.” Minamoto said, loud enough to be heard without shouting, “The Skraul Leadership has gotten sloppy. At least one of the remaining Matriarchs has been identified near Shimobashira, where Lord Tetsyyubo has made his stand. As reports also detail, a contingent of Te Fukushu and Karyudo Kisai are already in that area. But I have no intention of allowing them to claim all the glory.”

A few snickered at that, Koukatsuna included. Minamoto was not about glory, “We will confront this Matriarch. We will kill her, and be one step closer to victory. Ready the fighting men of Fusestu. We leave one in every three to see to the defense of the village. Be ready within the hour.”

Vala knew something was wrong. Something was in the air; smoke, and far too much of it for mere torches.

Slipping out against Hitomi’s disapproval, Vala spared a look around. The post was small, hardly more than a series of ramshackle cabins surrounding a large pavilion in which the Enchanters resided. She pinpointed the problem immediately because of this.

Soldiers were fighting in the streets about two bowshots down with armed peasants, outnumbered five to one. She wondered why she couldn’t hear them more clearly, and assumed a masking enchantment.

As she watched, three soldiers retreated, grievously wounded. At first, she assumed a riot, but when one of the peasants drew a metal rod and brandished it at the retreating soldiers, it became clear. Yokai’s rebels, the Kagemusha, had attacked the post, probably to abscond with the resident enchanters and their wares.

She was too far away to engage in direct combat and unarmed as well, so she targeted the one with the wand and sought to overwhelm his mind with a barrage of telepathic suggestions.

Trained as he was to withstand hostile magicka, Kaimei sensed but didn’t understand the nature of the attack. But he kept it at bay as best he could, using a regiment of strict mental discipline techniques beaten into him as a child.

His temples throbbed, and something wet trickled down his ear, but he no longer felt the urge to attack his comrades as he had moments prior. He sought out the source, and saw a woman down the street, dressed in white. There was something off about her, but she was too far away for him to place it.

“O-over there!” he sputtered, “That one, kill her!”

So be it! Unarmed or not, she’d give them the fight of their lives!

Vala could have found a defensible position, but not without drawing the rebel’s attentions to Hitomi’s house.

Keep the doors locked.” she projected telepathically to him, “No matter what.”

With that she bolted down the alleyway, the Humans in close pursuit. Vala slid into the shadows, for thankfully, only the wand bearer carried a torch. They closed on her location, uncertainly. She waited for the opportune target, but gasped as each of them converged on her exact position, looking her right in the eyes.

“Enchanted for night vision...” she cursed, “Fine then. Come and get it, you maggots!”

“Sore wo korosu!” one of them screamed in reply, and as one they brandished their katanas. One attacked before his comrades, and Vala delivered a brutal kick to his ribs, all the while slipping in and hooking her arm around his elbow. With a savage upward thrust she twisted the Human’s wrist and dislodged his sword, catching it in a reverse grip and backward slashing him across the chest, sending up a fine arc of blood.

Three more closed the gap and attacked, but thus armed she parried one blow while slipping under the defenses of the next attack, and with her grip righted she delivered a much deeper stroke across the pinned Human’s underbelly. Muscle split and bowel poured out the wound. The Human gasped, fell to his knees, and tried to put himself back in place.

The third attacker was possessed of much more agility, though through skill or fear she couldn’t say, backpedaling and pressing the momentum against her unprotected flank. Had she been any ordinary swordswoman that would have been the end of her, but with a burst of telepathic energy she overloaded the mechanism in the Human’s brain that controlled his limbic system, and sent him sprawling as he abruptly lost all comprehension of his own motor functions. Seeing her so easily dismantle the first group of warriors, the other Humans backed off, uncertain.

“Not so helpless, am I?” she sneered, testing the weight and grip of her new weapon. It was a common but well made katana, with a blade of high carbon steel with a ripple pattern betraying its many folds. A deep blood groove ran down the center of the slightly curving, damascus blade, its single edge razor sharp. The handle, wrapped in an outer layer of dull brown cloth, was ray-skin, with a plain brass tsuba and pommel. It’d probably been made by a smith of some refute and owned by a petty officer, perhaps a captain.

It would do...

She’d never formally practiced kendo, but she’d seen others at practice and knew the fundamentals. Vala held the weapon with both hands, diagonally and slightly forward, bending her knees slightly. The key with such a style was the psychological aspect; to feint and undermine your opponent’s confidence, in addition to precise footwork and posture. With a minor glamour wrought of suggestive telepathy she made herself appear slightly larger, more imposing. She bared her fangs, and hissed.

The effect was profound. Vala could smell the sweat on them, taste their fear.

She took the initiative, lunging forward. They defended well, fanning out and circling, but she attacked in such a way to hazard their center of gravity, beating down their sense of balance with unexpected strikes from precise strokes that used every bit of potential momentum from her elbows and knees.

Not a one managed to get close enough to touch her; when it seemed she was cornered, she slipped between their lines. When it seemed like her flank was vulnerable she turned defense into attack, snarling, clawing, and biting at them, all to dissuade them from making the distance.

One Human broke and fled, unwilling to continue. Vala didn’t pursue, couldn’t. The distraction gave her the opportunity to slip around the defenses of another, and a stroke to the back of the neck cleanly decapitated him and rendered his collapsing body a shield between her and the rest.

Another pressed the advantage, bolting around the corpse and lunging, and she snarled, breaking their focus long enough to hook a foot behind their ankle and trip them up, causing him to stumble. A diagonal stroke took him in the side, and he gasped, blooded, squirming away.

She reverse-gripped the katana and backhand-blocked a strike from behind, righted the grip, then delivered a diagonal stroke that took the next attacker, a female, under the ribs, cutting deeply into her flesh. A loop of intestine seeped from the wound, followed by the rest.

With only one opponent remaining and finding herself uncharacteristically winded, Vala lashed out ruthlessly with her mindbreaking abilities. The Human groaned, clutching his head as blood poured out through his nostrils.

She increased the pressure, suddenly realizing in a panic that the retreating rebels might still break into Hitomi’s house! That enchanter had pinpointed her immediately; he might know from where she’d come!

Die.” she snarled, forcing even more telepathic pressure into the Human’s brain cavity and literally boiling it inside of the skull. The Human’s wrinkled face pinched, and his dull brown eyes burst, the sockets steaming from the intense heat.

She passed through the dead and dying, finding her way back to the main street. The wand wielder was waiting for her, flinging her weapon aside with a burst of telekinesis.

Up close he hardly looked threatening. He was short, armored but pudgy and a little soft, with an unassuming, introspective face. Still, the killer look in his eyes was enough to validate him as a genuine threat. Vala did the first thing she could think of that might distract him. She kicked her sword at him. It deflected off an invisible barrier, but the Human flinched, just like she needed him to.

She threw every ounce of her telepathic focus against his personal defenses, and the Human gasped, lowering his weapon. Their wills clashed. The veins bulged in his forehead, and Vala almost pushed her index and middle fingers through the bridge of her own nose with the strain of her telepathic attack.

It was only then she realized that no less than a dozen Humans were beside him; the rest of the raiding party. That was it, then. At least they hadn’t found She found herself comfortable in saying that.

There was a shout from afar, and suddenly the sky darkened with arrows. Vala recoiled reflexively, creating a barrier of telekinetic energy to protect herself. The projectiles redirected away from her in a obtuse arc, and she saw the rest outright deflected by the Human enchanter.

Cursing, the rebel shouted to his fellows, and the retreat was on. They picked up their wounded, few that there were, and bolted. Vala charged them, reclaiming her katana as she went. The enchanter waved his hands through a series of gestures, and all of them blinked out of existence, only to reappear several bowshots away.

Cursing, Vala came to a stop. The soldiers, positioned along the sparse rooftops, descended and gave chase, haranguing the rebels with arrows and curses. When it became clear there was no catching them they returned, checking for vital signs from those she’d struck down and detaining those she’d only injured. One noticed her, turned, and bowed reluctantly. She returned the gesture, though it was about time they showed her the proper respect.

She turned towards the house, putting her new sword in a lacquered wooden scabbard she took from the dead, a brown slightly darker than that of the handle. A temporary replacement for Toshisha, and a means to protect herself when she left the post. Soon...

She woke to the sound of Arteth’s deep respiration. Her head rose and fell with his chest. Slipping out of their bed, carefully as not to wake him, Kaileena relieved herself in the chamber pot under the bed, washed up a bit, ate a small bowl of cold rice, and sat at her desk. It’d been at least a few hours, but it felt as if she hadn’t slept at all. Tears, mostly born of frustration, threatened, but she forced them down. She wouldn’t save herself by panicking.

She held the black gem in her hands, slowly turning it in the light. The spirits within greeted her, and Kaileena sighed, “I wish Lenao were still here. He would have figured something out. Or perhaps even Golem, having been created with a fragment of his soul, might have sufficed.”

Golem, a homunculus, had been an artificial construct but nonetheless capable of independent thought, and it had made him ideal as a sounding board. He’d blurred the line between life and the imitation thereof, which said something about creating a construct that almost perfectly replicated life...perhaps he even had been-

Kaileena jolted fully awake, a new possibility occurring to her, something that might have given her goose-bumps if she could get them. No sweat glands.

She tore free a strip of parchment and took out her notes, visualizing a new combination of enchantments that she would never have considered were she not driven to absolute desperation.

Vala slid out of bed the next morning, restive. Her new sword, the brown katana, was propped against the wall.

Tonight she would see about getting a tanto or wakizashi to match. In the meantime she eyed the small box beside it. Hitomi, grateful for her leading the rebels away, had insisted on pampering her in some way, so she’d asked for a maintenance kit to appease him. She knew mundane swords required a certain amount of care, in the same sense that a Blood-Forged Blade needed to feed to maintain its edge and integrity.

She opened the small box to find six items; cotton cloth, a powder ball, a small vial of clove oil, rice paper, and a small hammer and awl.

Vala began by using the rice paper to remove any residual oils from the last cleaning (as well as the blood from last night). After that she disassembled the handle by using the awl to extract the series of bamboo pins that held it in place. Generally, one tried to minimize doing this, lest the grip be loosened, but Vala would do this at least once now to ensure the part of the metal that fitted inside was clean. She then took the powder ball and tapped it against the blade, a few times to get the powder out through the material, then once every seven centimeters or so, all down the length of the steel, then again on the opposite side.

That done, she took the rice paper from its clean side and rubbed along the blade, polishing it. She did this until the powder was all gone, then drew out the oil. It was actually mostly mineral oil with a clove oil additive. Too much clove would cause the alloy to rust.

She oiled first the part of the metal which would be reinserted into the handle, then re-constructed it after wiping it down with the sheet of cotton cloth. That done, she lightly oiled the rest of the blade, wiped it down with the cotton cloth, and then re-sheathed it. Taking the last sheet of cotton cloth, she polished the lacquered wooden scabbard, below the kurikata and shitodome; the woven knot and fitting on the scabbard near the handle.

Finished, Vala set the blade away, giving the oil and polish time to dry. After that, she might practice with it in the evening. There was no harm in developing her technique, after all. Those soldiers had a good bit of interest now in seeing her fit for battle...since she’d just fought much of their battle for them.

Still, though she was pleased with her find, Vala still ached for Toshisha. It was far more than a weapon, it was, quite literally, an extension of her very soul. Every vampyre that created a Blood-Forged Blade did so with a fragment of their vital essence, which infused with the weapon at the time of its creation. Toshisha was her, at least, a part of her, and its absence pained her like the sensations an amputee might experience.

Sighing, Vala went to the stove and drew some tea, nodding a greeting to Mariko and Mei, who knelt on the floor on either end of a bowl of rice. She propped herself against the wall, careful not to step out of the shadows of the room, for a small window near the top of the far wall kept half the room in sunlight.

She hated not being able to walk in sunlight, and perhaps not just because it hindered her journey. It wasn’t something Vala had adequately reflected on, much like her association with the Humans.

No matter, there was a long day yet, and she had plenty of time to think about it.

Aika eyed the excavation site, taking in the positions of the sentries as well as sparing a glance towards the structure itself. Never before had she seen such stark geometry, such absolute precision, not even in the iron towers of the vampyres.

The Skraul were still digging, though from the looks of it, it wouldn’t be long before they broke through.

We wait...” she ordered in hand signals, which were then relayed by a series of mirrors to the other hunters surrounding the deep gully that contained the site, “This is a robbery, not an assassination. Let them do the finding for us.”

Koukatsuna paced along the length of the heavily armed caravan inching its way up to Shimobashira.

Oh, how a drink would have done him good...but he still had a week left before his month expired. Damn Ryū!

No matter; when the trip ended he’d be positioned to kill another Matriarch. Perhaps he could kill two...

He’d trained Minamoto’s soldiers as best he could, had relieved them of their misplaced ideals of honor and fairness. With his efforts they were readied killers who would dispatch vampyres without hesitation, without mercy. They would cut a bloody swath through the lines and lead him to his sweet, sweet kill.

Still...something was missing, and Koukatsuna thought he knew what it was, specifically, what she was. Vala. Vala had proven herself in combat; between the two of them they’d killed Uejini. Her skills complemented his quite well. Skilled, intelligent, practical, and, most importantly, a ruthless killer, she was precisely his type of person.

It saddened him distantly that she wouldn’t attend the festivities. He always liked a captive audience when he paraded about an enemy’s corpse.

Arteth scratched his chin in his sleep, and the lack of weight on that arm jolted him awake. He looked up, groggy, trying to find Kaileena. Where...oh, there she was, at her desk, furiously writing-

He was on his feet in a moment, alarmed.

“What do you do there, Kaileena?” he asked, and she shivered, startled, looking back to him. He didn’t like the peculiar, veiled look on her face, but she shrugged and beckoned him over. As he looked down, she subtly slipped one sheet under a group of others, but he couldn’t quite make out what it’d said.

The sheet at the top of the stack, however, riveted his attention immediately. It held a sequence of magickal binding runes, like those used in a powerful conjuration. But from its shape he inferred it was more akin to a transmutation. They surrounded a double-layered thamaturgic triangle, which itself held a single rune; the infinity symbol. He’d never seen such a binding before.

“What is this?” he asked, eyeing the sheet uneasily, and Kaileena breathed, pained, “My salvation. I just...need to prepare its necessary components. I also need you to collect a few things from the Hitorigami’s ingredient room while I do so; crushed pearl, diamond dust, a three foot circle of cold iron, Aqua Fortis, a bottle or two of Elixir of the White Hare, and seven clear quartz prisms.”

Nodding breathlessly, the Djinn was off without a word, activating a short range teleportation.

Kaileena set aside the depiction of the rune that she would create, and spent a moment or two writing down her last thoughts on the other document, the one she’d hidden; her will.

She left Gatsuyu the iron tower in the likely event of her death, though she mentioned Arteth had the right of it as well. Her Noble’s Crest, and the status that it brought, she also left to Gatsuyu to do with as he wished.

She also requested cremation, if the Eternal Return or what she was about to do didn’t destroy her body anyway, and for her ashes to be given to the Kodama and spread in the forest. As much as she wanted to be interred with her parents, the wild grove felt the more proper choice, where she could be free in death as she had not been in life.

There was no precedent that would allow her to predict the outcome. No caster in the multi-verse had ever done what she would soon attempt. It left her trembling, for more than that reason alone. Guilt gnawed at her. She contacted the spirits in the black gem.

I need to speak with you.” she said telepathically, “All of you...there is something that I...need to ask of you. I cannot do it without your blessing.

The mother answered first, “You need to use our power to cast a spell? You have it, freely.”

Tears threatening, Kaileena shook her head, though they could not see that, “No. I would set you free from the gem, with your permission.”

Her words, and the heartbreak in them, instantly sobered the rest.

What do you mean?” they asked, and Kaileena gasped, struggling to control her emotions, “I know how to save myself from soul-death without becoming a lich. It requires a gem filled with souls and involves a powerful transmutation, one that will change your black gem and alter its fundamental purpose. To do so would...

...To do so would void its contents, sending you to whatever afterlife mortal souls know.”

Tell us, Kaileena, what you propose.” said the baker.

She did, omitting no detail.

...You walk a dark path, child.” the mother said grimly, and Kaileena agreed, “It has been my path the moment magicka came to me. I would always put myself in danger to save others and suffer for it. So, this is my suffering.”

Perhaps...” she replied, “But it is only right that, just this once, others sacrifice for you. You have earned this much...I speak for myself, but you have my leave.

You spoke to us freely...” the baker said, “You treated us like living things, when even those who tried to save us treated us only as remnants. You shared with us your life, your experiences. You confided in us, asked our counsel, gave us a purpose again. We want an end anyway, so if this sacrifice will give you a second chance, let it be done.”

Many of the other, unidentifiable souls recoiled in fear, but emanated fitful acceptance. Their understanding shamed her, ate away her resolve.

I...I cannot do this!” she stammered, recoiling at their approval of the disgusting act she suggested, “I would be killing you, murdering you. I-

Child...” the mother interrupted, “We are no longer alive. We can never be what we once were. I’ve rectified that truth, accepted it. But if we can save you, if we can do this one final good deed, I will happily oblige.”

We have a debt...” added the sailor, “To you, and to the one that did this to us. I would give my soul to the void to pay it in full. Live, Kaileena, and give the bastard what for, for all of us.”

Agonized, Kaileena modified the gem’s casing, and cast herself into their midst telepathically. Shocked, they “looked” to her, as she “stood” inside the gem itself, linked to her body by a thin tether. The spirits, some more defined than others, approached her. She embraced them all, weeping, “I will never forget you. Any of you. I swear it.”

The sailor laughed, grinning, “Don’t cry, little one. We’ll be looking over you on the other side. Bet on it.”

Aye.” replied the mother, “My children wait for me. I would like...I would like to see them again. To know their names. But I too will watch over you.”

Her spell ended with her stored magicka. Suddenly, Kaileena was again in her body, looking down at the black gem and all those within. Her tears ran down its surface. She despaired that she didn’t know their names. She despaired that they didn’t know their names. Perhaps they would soon.

Shaking, she took hold of the gem, restored her base magicka with her alchemist stone ring, and set to work, lest her will fail her.

Dinner was standard fare; steamed potato and celery dumplings, rice, and mushroom soup.

Vala enjoyed a few tidbits, but mostly left it to the others. She didn’t really need to eat, just did so as a courtesy to her hosts. The conversations, no longer awkward with her presence, drifted from the rebel attack to other, blander topics, which suited her just fine.

With her rudimentary understanding of their language she could comment with telepathy when she wanted to add something. Even Makoto had gotten used to her psychic intrusions. Mariko, wide-eyed and enthusiastic, had enjoyed the sensation from the start, and had constantly pestered her with questions about magicka and the races that used it. Hitomi had dismissed her lines of questioning as obnoxious and needless, but Vala hadn’t minded.

Indeed, were magicka not so loathed in that part of the world, she would have encouraged the girl’s curiosity on the subject fully and attempted to teach her Mindbreaking.

“Vala...” Makoto said aloud, and Vala mentally translated as best she could, “You spoke of knowing Lord Minamoto. I’m certain that is an interesting story.

Finishing her bite, she smiled, replying telepathically in such a way that everyone would sense it, “A complicated story, actually. I aided the Silkrit Rebellion and traveled with them to this world. Both myself and a Silkrit Warrior, Koukatsuna, were welcomed by Minamoto as emissaries.

You travelled between worlds?!” Mariko asked, astounded.

Indeed. After Yokai tapped into a certain, forbidden power, my sisters used it to create magickal portals that allowed one to step across boundless distances. Thankfully, those portals are now inert.”

Your sisters...” Hitomi reiterated, for their benefit, and Vala sighed, “The ruling body of the Skraul Empire, the Matriarchs. I was quite pleased to leave one dead on the path to this world. I would leave many more ere I depart.”

You had to kill your own sister...” Mariko said, horrified, “I’m so sorry. That must have been difficult for you.”

It was not.” Vala replied simply, and left it at that. That old, awkward silence stretched for a time, so she added, “Fusestu was an interesting place. My associate, Koukatsuna, did nothing but complain, but the Silkrit people gained considerably by settling in the nearby lands. It’s quite beautiful in the spring.”

I heard much about that place.” Makoto replied, finishing off a dumpling, “It sounded nice.”

There is a simple beauty to this land.” Vala admitted, “I didn’t notice at first, but after a time it grows on you. The way the wind breaks upon the trees, carrying away dead leaves in the fall and cherry blossoms in the spring. The way the water breaks on the shoreline or the mill built on a bubbling stream. It is...difficult to define.”

Hitomi nodded, “As a soldier I saw a great many things from one end of the land to the other. The mountains were my favorite, though they were often also the most frightening. In the winter, when the trees were barren, the exposed mountain peaks looked like gnashing, angry teeth. Yet in the short spring that the North District sees, they bloom with color when the sun strikes them. It is...something to see.”

When I must leave this place, the fighting will be in the North District. Perhaps I will spare a glance to the mountains.”

Mariko gaped, “You plan to leave? Why?

The words suddenly stuck in her throat. Did they truly want her to stay?

I must go. There is still the threat my people pose to yours, and I must do my part to expunge it. There are...private matters that I would discuss with my remaining siblings before I kill them or see them killed.”

Hitomi paled at that, but didn’t disclose what they shared earlier. That respect told her what she needed to know, and she decided to reveal all, “I would have raised a daughter quite unlike my kin, but my siblings denied me that. They killed her, and lest I am mistaken warped me to such an extent that I will never birth again. For that, my soul will not rest until they are dead and all they aspired to accomplish is burned to ash.”

For the first time, Vala detected a mote of genuine empathy from Makoto, who’d been more than suspicious of her all this time, “Yes, soon I will leave. But I would return after...if you would welcome me.”

Of course!” Mariko blurted, then sputtered, looking to her parents for support.

Makoto smiled, abashed, “Of course. You are always welcome here, Vala. We’ve come to consider you family, and we do not abandon our family, no matter what.”

With only the greatest of willpower, Vala kept the tears at bay, though her vision blurred noticeably, “Arigato, Makoto-Sama.”

Arteth returned to their room, the ingredients (for the most part) in a large satchel tied across his back. The iron circle, three feet in diameter, rested in his hand and armpit, but fell to the ground as the surroundings registered. Kaileena stood over her desk, holding something in her hands that he couldn’t see. She was sobbing...

“Kaileena?!” he asked, alarmed, running to her side. His shadow covered her and the solid prism of white crystal in her hands.

“They’re all gone...” she managed, her throat raw, “All gone. They agreed to sacrifice themselves for me.”

He heard the truth in those words, though he knew well enough the empathy and the affection she’d felt for the spirits imprisoned in the black gem, and that she would never have harmed them.

But she had harmed them. The black gem was a black gem no longer.

“What have you done?” he asked, with no judgment in his voice, and that, the lack of accusation, brought her eyes in line with his.

“I transformed the gem into another kind of vessel; intended to house a single soul.” she replied, “I will never consent to Lichdom. But, ironically, I will in the end accept a similar condition. I will no longer be a Silkrit...not really. Please, leave the components here...and...and fetch Gatsuyu and Nagomi, and Hana, and...and Mikoto too. If I fail, I would have them here say goodbye.”

“What do you say?” Arteth breathed, but Kaileena shook her head, “You have Yokai’s spell and my blood. With that, you can create another me if what I’m about to do fails. I won’t really die either way.”

He took her in his hands, forcing her up. She winced, her legs shaking, unsteady. She could barely stand...her eyes were sunken and dark-lidded. Her flesh was a network of small cuts and bruises.

“I don’t want an incarnation.” he growled, “I want you, Kaileena. Forever.”

Her smile grew distant, mournful, “You just might have it. Please, go get them. I’ll finish up here.”

He made his way to the flying ships of the Skraul. Thanks to the divining orb in his pack he knew which one was the flagship. Which one held his wife.

Vilaseth threw back his hood, scratching his pointed ears, upon which hung many rings of cold iron. He took a deep breath and mentally prepared, as he had in his early days when he was about to undertake a job.

He had his short-sword and daggers, finely forged of glassteel; the favored ore of the Djinn. They hadn’t seen true battle yet but they were finely tested in the practice halls and arenas of Moonshadow, though the diamond-hard material showed not a scratch from the decades of abuse.

His bladed buckler, his signature tool, he’d never replaced from his days in Augur, favoring the familiar heft of weathered steel. The same with his thigh-sheathed hand crossbow.

He readied three additional items, enchanted baubles on loan, and used them to make himself levitate, become incorporeal, then become invisible. The last two would only function with one person, but he could at least make his way to Elurra first, undetected, then cut a bloody swath across the deck as he made his escape.

That was the plan, at least. He’d suffered a quick improvisation more than once, especially where Elurra was concerned. Together, they’d slain a powerful Lich, had braved the Underworld not once but twice, confronted Morag Toth, the original Dread Hammer, and stolen a powerful artifact from the flagship of a Pirate Lord. They’d laid siege to Sottarfar with an army of Humans and Elves, withstood an undead assault on the temple of Anima, and defeated a mad demigod in battle beside Surthath’s avatar.

A simple smash and grab would be child’s play to him now...

“Damn.” Lord Takauji cursed, as warning bells rang out throughout the city of Shimobashira. That only meant one thing; the vampyres had tired of a siege and decided to finally throw something sizable at the defenses.

He hastily donned his robes and haori; he wore no armor, not even in battle. A series of belts, loaded with satchel bombs, some fragmentary, some incendiary, others filled with one-time-use enchantments that would be useful in almost any situation, lined his wide waist.

Four two-shot pistols, the closest he’d ever come to the revolver style among the Pirate Lords, were held in thigh sheaths, along with a wide assortment of bullets. His favorite were the armor piercing ones; they could punch a hole in an unarmored target, and the one behind them, and the one behind them...

In addition, an amulet was hidden in the folds of his robes which could deflect any enchantment. Not even the Hitorigami’s famed magicka-eliminating katana could defeat it. It was his closely kept secret with Tetsyyubo, should they ever decide, never mind that.

A tacky ring adorned each of his fingers, fitted not to interfere with the movements of each. Each ring contained a potent offensive enchantment.

Thus armed, he left the woman who’d been sleeping beside him; one of his wives he’d brought in order to relieve himself, locking the room behind him. It was time to see what could be done to save Shimobashira.

It was time for goodbyes.

Hitomi offered her a military salute. She returned the gesture; one warrior to another. Mariko was hardly as graceful, leaping to embrace her so strongly that Vala was sorely glad her stomach had long ago healed. Makoto was less insistent, but equally genuine.

You get back to us.” she said simply, and Vala nodded, gently embracing Mei, who’d started to decline mentally with age and had nothing to say. It was uncertain if the woman remembered her, but Vala took from it what she could.

She wore her repaired leathers, her cloak, and her scarf. Makoto insisted she take the white kimono she’d worn so it currently resided in her pack along with her Noble’s Seal, a few portions of food, and her flask, filled with blood drawn one last time from the prisoners of the trading post, who were now far more numerous thanks to her efforts.

She’d also fed directly, just to keep herself fit enough not to turn to ash in the sunlight.

It was overcast today, and Vala knew it would remain so for the next few days. Winter had a way of keeping the sun hidden and muted. It still stung her skin and forced her to squint, but she would manage.

There was much to be done; first and foremost she would track down and reclaim Toshisha. Then she would pay a visit to Minamoto or another Human leader and see what she could do about arranging a “meeting” with her siblings.

She gave her final farewells, then departed. The soldiers gave her wide berth, but let her pass. She’d proven herself an ally in the attack. She didn’t look back, though her heart was full of regrets, wondering, perhaps, If she would ever return.

Not once, until this point, had she ever considered the possibility of a happy ending to her tale...

Kaileena took a few hours to nap, then made her final preparations.

Forced to the indignity of levitating, for her legs no longer supported her easilly, Kaileena took a seat before the circle, supporting each of the items she carried with telekinesis.

After returning from the Outer Coast, Arteth had charged her ring with power, giving her a substantial amount of energy to draw from. It would be enough...

She laid the iron circle flat on the ground. Inlaid in its borders was a ring of symbols carved into the ore, with melted silver filling the voids. It was pristine, magickally hardened to be all but indestructible. It served as a platform on which to work complex spells, specifically transmutations.

Kaileena hardened her grief at her lost friends, though she knew not their names, and took a seat beside it. It was close to but not quite three feet in length, being 2.29659 feet, the equivalent of seven decimeters. Inside the circle she sprinkled a secondary ring of the pearl dust, roughly forty-nine centimeters in diameter, and, inside of that circle, she sprinkled a second one of diamond dust, seven centimeters in diameter.

She took care not to complete each, leaving less than a millimeter free of powder so she could seal them later. Within those two circles rested a flask of Elixir of the White Hare, and, hovering suspended by her telekinesis, was the gem which had once, and would again, house souls.

Seven quartz prisms circled the room in a circumference ten times that of the iron circle. By doing so, she’d found the number forty nine and its square root twice; a very specific arrangement that benefited the type of spell she would cast through enchantment and advanced alchemy.

Kaileena took a moment to prepare, then said through the telepathic link with Arteth, “No matter what happens, do not attempt teleportation to the room I now inhabit. I cannot say what will happen if something interferes with the energies I am about to manipulate.

Receiving a grudging response from her mate, Kaileena breathed deeply, locked and magickally sealed the doors, chased away the remnants of her anxiety, and began to funnel a very specific enchantment into the iron circle on the floor.

She would not, could not, interact with any of the components upon completing the twin rings of pearl dust and diamond dust. To do so would corrupt the integrity of the spell and release its untapped energies, likely killing her instantly and making a very nasty hole where her room had been.

She checked and double-checked the enchantment, going off the sheet of parchment she’d hastily scribbled the runes into earlier. If even a single element was off by even the slightest margin the spell would corrupt the central gem and her life would end. Horribly.

Satisfied that her runes and the energies they represented were perfectly formed, she drew power from her alchemist stone ring and used it to fill the iron circle with purpose; a single purpose.

The seven quartz prisms began to glow, further protecting the integrity of her enchantment. That done, she pushed a vial of concentrated Aqua Fortis, a potent acidic compound, into the center of the ring. The moment she sealed it within the completed ring of diamond dust, the iron circle took over, holding the Aqua Fortis and gem aloft. Kaileena completed the ring of pearl dust, and watched on, unable to do more.

The Aqua Fortis upended, spilling its contents onto the gem, specifically, onto a single point only. The acid would eat a small hole in the gem, momentarily compromising it, allowing her to apply the Elixir of the White Hare to its core.

The seven crystals around the room pulsed, throbbing with the gathering energy. The gem sizzled, and a single insert appeared, creating a hairline crack, which slowly expanded, leaking raw arcane energies, appearing to her as a mist of shifting chromatic colors.

The Elixir lifted itself through the air, replacing the position of the acid, and it too emptied into the breach. The moment the liquid, a dark cherry-red syrup, entered the breech, the entire gem flared with color. Kaileena watched, awed, as the diamond dust spread, and then formed a floating cloud that encircled the gem and repaired the breach. The seven crystals began to hasten, moving so fast through the air as to hum, their flashing lights becoming uneven, chaotic, and blindingly bright.

The central gem, now containing the elixir, surged with new power, and the enchantment within the iron circle wrote a second, permanent enchantment into the gem itself, transforming it to suit her purpose.

She watched, awestruck, as the energies within both iron and gem consumed themselves, and left only a single item. The iron circle corroded with rust, cracked, and turned to dust. The pearl dust withered and blackened, turned to base carbon. The seven crystals orbiting the room tarnished, cracked, and shattered.

Only the gem remained.

Kaileena rose unsteadily, her legs wavering like those of a crone, or a cripple. Forcing her body to obey her, hissing at the shooting pain it brought her, Kaileena approached on her own. At a casual glance it appeared unchanged, just a crystal, unremarkable but for the absolute mathematical precision of its cut.

But it was not the same.

It would no longer function as a tool of foul necromancy. It would hold a single soul, her own, and with it she would be birthed anew.

“Alchemist Stone, indeed...” Kaileena mused, “I forgot to ask them if they wanted to name you. I regret that, because Alchemist Stone seems so unfitting. It won’t do. I name you Phoenix Stone, for like the phoenix I will rise from my own ashes. I will be free of the Eternal Return, for better or worse... ”

Everything was ready...

Vilaseth reactivated his enchantments and slowly floated up towards the winged ships, which hovered in endless circles around a strange excavation site.

He could care less about that for now.

Invisible and intangible, he went to even level with the flagship as it soared directly towards him, its bladed bowsprit jutting like a massive narwhal’s horn out the front. A figure clung to the ship under it, a statue of an elven maiden, her expression tormented. A sword pierced her chest, which connected to the bowsprit with a length of rope.

He didn’t flinch as the bowsprit plunged into his incorporeal form. He maintained the enchantment as he passed through several series of chambers, waiting to reach the captain’s hall. He knew it was huge, but also knew that the torture chamber was, to no surprise, right under the shrine to the Dread Hammer. He wouldn’t pass through that room until he had to...

When he found the right spot he deactivated the enchantment of intangibility, returning fully to the physical realm with an audible pop.

The assassin fell into a crouch in a long hallway leading back to a flight of stairs up to the shrine. The ship had a substantial amount of metal framework, he noticed, for something that was airborne. Odd...

Back when he’d been a cutthroat in Augur, the only places he remembered that had so much steel in their construction were bunkers, low to the ground and built to last. Somehow the vampyres had made themselves a flying ship with a hardened, heavy carapace that would probably shrug off cannon fire.

The people in this new, strange land had it cut out for them, he gave the poor bastards that.

Taking a dagger in a reverse grip, Vilaseth looked through a series of small rooms, each designed to hold one prisoner and an audience. The devices that were proudly displayed in each made even him, a hardened killer, cringe. By the fifth room his face had no doubt acquired a sickly green complexion, and in the sixth, he found her.

“Elurra...” he moaned, pained. His wife, his love, his everything, was hanging from a ceiling-mounted chain like a piece of meat. Her blue-tinted black skin was unmarred, not even hinting at the abuse done to her, but hanging by her arms appeared to have dislocated both shoulders. Her regeneration couldn’t mend that injury until the pressure there was alleviated.

Making a cursory inspection of the room and the outside hallway, he sheathed his dagger and pulled out his thieving tools. His invisibly dissipated the moment he stepped within five feet of the darksteel shackles. Anti-magicka. Figured.

He was a bit out of practice in lock picking, and he eyed the shackles holding her, a simple bolt and weld construction that defied such tools, with absolute hatred. Glancing up, he saw that the link affixed to the ceiling was something else, so he took a closer look.

He grinned despite himself, finding a more practical padlock design. He found a stool but also found it insufficient, so, unfortunately, he was forced to climb right over Elurra and up her chains. He tried to be gentle and failed, rising hand over hand over her body and up to the lock. The key insert was slightly further down the plate, and it was there he set to work, teasing the tumblers to simulate the actual use of the key.

The clicks and snaps as he pushed each one into the right position brought him back to another time, and despite his trepidation at his failure and absolute frustration at his wife’s condition, he stayed calm and focused.

When the tumblers were readied he snapped the mechanism into a turn, and it gave way, clicking open. Elurra slid down to the floor, landing with a thud, the chains rattling loudly.

Cursing, Vilaseth touched down as softly as he could, then spared a listen if anyone had heard. Nothing, but then, that told him nothing. Vampyres, like his kin, were notoriously light-footed.

Supremely uneasy now that his goal was in sight, he rolled Elurra over. She groaned with pain as her shoulders popped back into their joints, but did not awaken. Tears collected in his eyes, but Vilaseth forced them back, concentrating on his task.

Now that he had the chain down he could take her with it still attached, but that would prove a problem. He could maintain invisibility on both of them, but not the more complex intangibility enchantment. He just hadn’t had enough time to procure something more potent.

First things first, he dragged Elurra outside into an adjacent room. It was his experience that upon discovery of an escape guards rarely though to first check adjoining cells, assuming more ground had already been covered. He’d slipped out of more than a few dungeons waiting out the alarm for a bit, looking for a good window of opportunity.

He checked the shackles again; made of solid darksteel, they were too thick to cut with his glassteel weapons. A battle axe of similar material might have done it, but his collection of daggers and slim, short blades would not.

He grimaced, knowing what he had to do but being deathly afraid to. Had she not suffered enough?

Cursing his softened heart, Vilaseth readied a sharp dagger with some serration along its length, and flexed out Elurra’s left thumb, getting a feel for its weakest point. Djinn bones were tough, so he couldn’t spare a weak grip or the wrong spot.

When he found the weakest part of the joint, he went to work quickly, dragging the blade back and forward in a sawing motion to pierce the muscle. Elurra’s groans intensified, but still she did not wake.

When he bisected the bone he passed through a nerve, and that set her off. She screamed; a mindless, animal wail, and he finished the job, dislocating the thumb and pushing off the shackle.

“Elurra...” he hissed, covering her mouth, “I don’t know if you can hear me, or even if you can that you can understand me, but keep quiet. I’m halfway done.”

He got no response, so he gritted his teeth and went to the other thumb. The first incision made her groan, then she begin to shriek. Cursing, he tore a strip of cloth from his cloak and gagged her with it.

Should have thought of that in the first place.

The muscle was already closing so he had to reopen it, cursing, and sawed through the bone, and nerve, a second time. Elurra thrashed, her eyes distant and unfocused, and he pinned the arm down with a knee.

No easy task. Even barely coherent she was much stronger than he was. She was just as likely as not to give him a concussion with a stray flick of the wrist.

He dislocated the other thumb, removed the shackle, and watched as her blue runes flared to life, speeding her regeneration even further. The further he dragged her from the darksteel, the brighter the runes became.

It would be a good idea to try and wake her. Elurra knew one or two instant teleport spells, and could possibly handle the extraction herself. He lay her on her back, her slim tail lashing this way and that.

“Elurra...” he whispered, holding up her head, “Elurra, can you hear me?”

“No more...” she replied in a broken, hopeless tone, and Vilaseth cursed. She wasn’t fully there, not yet. The assassin didn’t think he had enough time...

Someone came down the stairs, and he cursed harder. Nothing for it, he threw her over his shoulder, then reactivated his enchantment of invisibility, disappearing from sight. Darting out into the hallways, he heard a shout of surprise, then a curse as a vampyre went back to the stairs. A dark mirror of his own elven features, the Skraul, by the looks of him a lowly arbiter, passed him by. Knowing the patrols in this area were not very numerous, he drew and aimed his hand crossbow, then fired.

The bolt struck the vampyre in the ankle, and the fiend cursed, falling into a roll with some acuity. A flick of the wrist sent a dagger spinning into his throat. Vilaseth passed over the vampyre as he sputtered and died, taking to the very stairs from which he came.

A cry of alarm sounded as an entrance to the temple was unearthed. That was good, Dekeshi mused, for it wouldn’t do to have to dig out the entire temple to reclaim the artifact.

“Did you bring it?” she asked Chikara, and her prime nodded, offering an arm-length object wrapped in cloth.

Smiling, the matriarch advanced into the ruins, not sparing a glance to those behind her, “Grandsons, you are with me, along with two dozen Arbiters. Enshi, guard the flank with the slaves. Let nothing pass. If you fail, I will kill you myself.”

It’d been a long time since he’d felt fear.

Lord Takauji looked down from the balcony in Tetsyyubo’s villa, high enough to glance over the outer wall even while in the center of the city. All trees within a square mile of the walls had been ripped away to prepare for this, but it seemed a pointless effort, for there were so many enemies it still would have been impossible to miss with arrows or bullets, and conjured sheets of darkness blotted out the sun where the winter overcast did not.

The vampyres didn’t march, they surged, like a great black tide. Many were climbing Shimobashira’s walls, unmindful of their fellows dying in droves all about them. They didn’t even flinch as they sustained wounds that would have laid low even the strongest Human warriors. Such mindless obedience chilled him to the core.

A thousand soldiers, male and female, stood at the ready; riflewomen at the wall, archers and swordsmen along the inner ridge. A dozen newly constructed chain guns stood at certain intervals, releasing a deafening spray of bullets, turning the trenches into an obscuring cloud of dust.

Lord Tetsyyubo stood beside him, utterly implacable under his coverings and helm.

Disperse the rabble.” he said in his odd, listless, sexless voice, no doubt communicating via enchantment to his field officers. At that, a few soldiers scrambled across the walls, carrying large vats in threes and fours.

As Takauji watched, they upended them, pouring water. Vampyres toppled over one another, and he could well imagine their screams, as officers, each bearing enchanted ice wands, blasted them with frigid cold, freezing them solid. Hundreds turned to masses of ice in moments, forming a flowing, convoluted heap. Fearless, the vampyre slaves climbed up their own, but the soldiers weren’t done. They repeated their attack, moving forward this time with smaller vats.

Soon Takauji realized what they were doing, as the wand wielders froze the water faster and faster, further and further out. They were forming an inverted L over the wall, not just killing slaves but created a more difficult incline. He knew vampyres could scale ceilings, but ceilings of slick, uneven ice?

Granted, there was a downside to this; it created a small space under the L which would serve as cover. But honestly, they could hardly tunnel out underneath it. The ground was frozen solid, and the walls went deep!

“Well done, Lord Tetsyyubo.” he gasped, truly impressed, “The Renmei Kisai must not have easily parted with so many wands.”

The Lord of the North merely stared at him, “They parted with whatever I demanded them to.”

Fair enough...

There was a momentary halt in the advance, but like a great wave they came again. The ammunition crates were becoming few indeed...and the attack had scarcely begun.

Minamoto would soon be arriving with his soldiers, a few hundred at best, to attack the host’s flank. Would it be nearly enough?

Things weren’t looking good. Within ten leagues of Lord Tetsyyubo’s capital the Skraul had ambushed the supply train. Archers dotted the landscape, some hiding in the shadows of the tall pines.

The first few volleys had peppered the soldiers and wagons with projectiles, killing dozens, but thankfully, at Minamoto’s command, they’d set their own crossbow and rifle wielders in retaliation.

The black powder smoke had, intriguingly, offered cover, for there was no wind on that cold night. The next attacks were far less accurate, far less unnerving, and they had moved forward, firing blind into the darkness as they went. Many torches were lit, maintaining the obscuring cloud of smoke.

Koukatsuna crept along the forest, separated from the main force, seeking out a few easy kills. They would reach Shimobashira by the morning, and all they (that is to say, he) had to do was keep most of the soldiers alive until then. So, he would create confusion among the enemy, misdirecting their efforts. Controlled chaos. Koukatsuna excelled at this sort of work.

From what he could tell the offensive was almost entirely composed of slaves, with perhaps a few low ranking purebloods mixed in.

Sighting another archer; an Orc, the bladedancer grinned wickedly, slipping through the sparse undergrowth. Snow lay in patches, and he was careful not to disturb it lest the noise betray him. His faint breath trailed a thin fog, and his skin chilled. Waru and Saku were drawn, aching for blood, and their steel felt warm in his hands.

Careful not to let his scent travel downwind, through what little wind there was, Koukatsuna picked a diagonal path to his target, neither to the side or directly behind. The position offered him more options than a direct attack to the rear. When he was within six paces he lunged forward.

The sound startled the Orc and it twisted, bringing up its bow to parry like a quarterstaff. He would have none of it...

He came in low, under the descending arc of the bow, and ran the slave through, between the ribs. Choking on blood, the Orc thrashed, tried to scream, but the attack had pierced a lung. It only made a wet gurgle, and he cut its throat for good measure with his other sword.

Lowering the kill gently to the ground, Koukatsuna took up the bow, and looked out in all directions, seeking movement. Seeing another dark figure in the distance, Koukatsuna wrapped the end of the arrow’s shaft with a strip of cloth.

Dripping a bit of the contents of his flask (no, he hadn’t drank anything since the wager!) onto the wrap, he pulled out a tinder twig, struck it against his boot, and lit the end of the arrow. The thing became a small torch.

He fired at a tree he knew they were hiding in, marking it for the riflemen. It shook with the resulting shots, and a something dropped out of it, quite dead. Unfortunately, Koukatsuna was forced towards an obscuring tree, for he’d also marked himself to the vampyres, and the hisses of airborne arrows filled the night.

One nicked him on the cheek, another got caught in the bulk of his cloak. But he slid into the shadow of another tree, then doubled back in a zigzag to throw them off. Nothing else got close.

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